Week 10 of COVID lockdown and Myrtle and I are all cooped up in two small rooms, called a one-bedroom apartment. You cannot swing a dead cat in here without lopping its head off. Two skips in any direction and I trip over the kitchen counter, where, of course, I must sample a banana, peanut butter cookie, or sweet. I no longer fit in my benchmark pants, the ones that are always tight but somehow always button up. They have stopped buttoning.
Pandemic is an awful word, Panic plus Epidemic equals Pandemic. We can walk outside but only when Myrtle needs and only with masks, which, with summer coming, are hot and impossible. Walking a pit bull is an athletic event. If I breathe as I need, I suck my mask into my mouth, drool and sneeze, which causes anyone we meet to cross the street away from us. I try instead to hold my breath when someone passes, counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 before I exhale. I pray there is no one near us when we come out the other side. What gives me life, my breath, can take it away.
Even if we could travel to somewhere “safe,” Myrtle is a pit bull, a designated deadly dog in many countries, even England, where she would face a 6-month isolation in the pound before she could trot on foreign soil. I doubt they will have many humans taking care of crated animals, given the pandemic. Poor Myrtle is a social dog.
All day, all night, Myrtle and I watch a series of lectures on the Black Death. Counterphobia can be soothing, for instance, being so afraid you will be runover by a train that you tie yourself to the train tracks in the hopes a collision will make you less anxious. The professor, indefatigably cheerful, wears bright-colored jackets, yellow, red, green, over a black catsuit, and low-heeled pumps. Books on knights, monks, feudal lords, and the humors fill her shelves. Jeweled skulls, blanched white and painted with death scenes, adorn her desk. Stuffed black rats, presumably not the ones that carried plague fleas, just a reminder, sit in whimsy on her leather cushions and armchair. I particularly love the makeshift oyster parquet floor, covered with a worn Persian carpet, gazelles prancing around roses in gardens where chivalrous deeds took place.
The professor never sits and often paces, illustrating key points with decisive but small hand gestures. She is not bashful, and I never fear her hands will meet one another and hold fast, just to keep her equilibrium. Nor does she pontificate with grand gestures, as her subject matter, like COVID, demands a certain respect.
The saddest thing about the Black Death was not that it killed 50% of the people on the planet. The saddest thing was that it came back every 10 years to kill the children, who had not suffered through it and had no immunity, enough to make the surviving 50% want to die. I do not know what I will do when Myrtle is gone, but with respect to COVID, dogs and many children seem blessedly immune.
Then, like now, there was a collapse of class distinctions and cry for equality, as those at the top fell off the backs of those below them. Even the decimated church was forced to bring peasants into its ranks while wages shot up for anyone who could actually make things, make them work, or work with his or her hands. The pace of innovation quickened, the need to pivot rose, and people were willing to implement disruptive innovations, to try anything, for human life to improve. Most critically, the Black Death ushered in the Renaissance, a period of unprecedented creativity and progress.
Myrtle and I are hopeful this will be the same, but it does not look that way, as we venture out, counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 exhale, inhale 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 exhale. I use my keys to press the elevator button and we hold our breaths till we reach the lobby. Stepping into the sunlight on what is normally a busy weekday, there is not a soul on the streets, except for the occasional couple in facemasks walking their dog or a single person, head wrapped in a scarf, though it is over 60 degrees.
The liquor stores are open, doing brisk business, but other storefronts are shuttered, several neighborhood establishments already permanently closed. We can tell because they have taken out the tables, counters, confections, and chairs and stripped these spaces down to the bare white walls and cement floors, also by the For Rent signs every third or fourth door. Myrtle noses around for a bit of egg sandwich under her usual breakfast bench, but there is nothing. No one is coming in or out of the subways, where there is usually a steady stream of people, all ages, shapes and kinds, eating on the fly, dropping succulent morsels of chocolate croissants, egg and pork burritos, and cheesy egg McMuffins to the pavement. Today, nada. The sidewalk café is closed.
Myrtle licks a menthol cigarette foil, shakes like the devil and spits on the ground. Long Island City has become nothing but a collection of buildings: half-built skyscrapers wrapped in plastic that waves in the wind; empty warehouses; quarantined apartment buildings. Almost nothing moves. Even the iconic yellow cabs, usually out in force, have disappeared in broad daylight. A sunshine crime.
Only the sporadic 7 train grinds through to Astoria, past essential construction workers, big burly men wearing surgical masks and gloves who carry saws, planks, and tools into empty, echoey buildings, like characters on a horror movie set. No one goes in or out of most of these buildings, but for food, medication, or pet walking, keeping one’s head down and 6 feet away from everyone else.
Myrtle and I queue up outside Key Foods for groceries, standing on a chalk mark six feet away from the next person, no more than 15 people allowed inside. After an hour, they let us in. I do not have to explain Myrtle is a comfort dog. No one cares anymore. They figure you get your comforts where you can. I am surprised people are not fucking in the streets, but it has not yet come to that. Everyone is well-behaved. A dry wilted lettuce lies in solitude, dead soldier on an otherwise empty shelf that used to contain color: carrots, parsley, cucumbers, dill, celery, tomatoes, and soup greens. The only red in the vegetable section is an overflowing cache of hot chili peppers in two large barrels, either side of the aisle. Myrtle knocks a few to the floor and licks at them, a poor prize. “No, no,” I say, pulling her away. “You will not like that.”
“¿Por qué ganó, Mami? ¿Me gusta eso?”
“Just because, ok? Trust me.”
She is already on to the meat aisle. Pork and beef are gone. This includes hotdogs, hamburger, steak, baloney, all except the $25 an ounce Wagyu beef from Japan encased in its refrigerated coffin behind the counter, but there are plenty of chicken breasts. Chicken 900 ways. I load my cart up. There is no canned soup left and no dried soup either, no Manischewitz lentil, vegetable, or pea soup packs. You can throw anything into them in a pot—meat, rice, vegetables—but Manischewitz soups are too low-priced to get traction in this neighborhood. You can order them online, 40 packs at a time, a bit of overkill as I have only two rooms in my apartment and no extra shelving. I may have to toss out books or hats or shoes to make room for food if this quarantine lasts through the summer.
The store has also run out of milk, except for almond or oatmeal milk in boxes that Myrtle loves to chew. She plasters her face to the glass and licks it, so I buy four. In the next aisle, the refrigeration section, all the frozen TV dinners and lean cuisines are gone. I load up on foods I’ve never purchased before (except to ice my knees), the less popular frozen vegetables: corn, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower. I buy enough that if I get the virus and am stuck home for 14 days under quarantine, no delivery people allowed in or out, I can microwave a couple of servings a day. If I can walk.
When we turn the corner, Myrtle’s nose starts twitching and her mouth drools like a Neapolitan Mastiff’s, rivers, either side. She smells a mountain of cheese which, for some reason, stands five shelves tall, a veritable monument to the cow, an abundance of all sorts of cheeses from every country imaginable: Dutch Mill Smoked Gouda, Sweetened Brie from Isle de France, Camembert form Normandy, Sharp New York Cheddar, Neapolitan Buffalo Mozzarella, Parmigiana Reggiano, Asiago from the province of Vincenza, Greek feta, and picante chevre or goat cheese.
Across the aisle from this overstuffed, toppling Everest lie its kissing cousins, vacuum sealed forever packs of sliced salami with herbs and black pepper, olive loaf, prosciutto, and capicola. There is chutney but no jam, and Myrtle noses along one jar of Nutella, which I scarf up. I buy as much as I can carry, especially the brie and salami.
All we are missing now is bread, the staff of life, the rock. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Bread, pure and simple. I want to die happy; don’t we all.
But when we enter the bread and cereal aisle, the shelves are empty except for half an open loaf of white sliced bread, which neither of us loves, and a box of Lucky Charms, that cockroach of cereals, indestructible, so many preservatives and so much sugar. Like a rabid monkey, I grasp at the box, read the label: sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar. I flip the box top open, hold it up to my nose and, though I know I shouldn’t, wearing a mask and all, inhale the sweet soft marshmallows and crunchy oats flakes of my childhood. I would lick it if that did not look weird. My body leans in. I close my eyes. I am there, seven years old, not knowing what I didn’t know, on the lawn in summer near the picnic table, wearing my favorite green and yellow sundress, which I realize with a shock has sunflowers on it, peculiar, because when the epidemic started, I hung no less than three sunflower canvasses on my walls. My seven-year-old self sits on the picnic bench with certitude. The paint peels, the splintery wood scratches my thighs, bees, daisies, and wildflowers wave in the breeze, a cold spoon of milk in hand. August’s sun vibrates through the full branches of our old mimosa tree as I dig into the bowl for an orange star, a yellow moon, and bees buzz by, and a single mimosa flower sifts down through the lazy tepid atmosphere and lands on my knee in a starburst and I want, I want, I want. But I know things now. I cannot go back. I can never go back. I put the box aside and walk on, past the pink hearts and green clovers of childhood.