Tripping out on the coronavirus
By Maria Johnson
DAY ONE, EARLY MARCH: 12 confirmed cases in NYC
Yippee! Today’s the day we meet our sons for a long weekend in upstate New York, where the younger lad lives.
Earlier in the week, my husband and I discussed whether we should make the trip, given that the China-born coronavirus Covid-19 has gusted into the East Coast of this country.
We consider that we will pass through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the country’s busiest, going both ways, and that our older boy will be traveling from New York City, where the virus is blossoming.
One way or another, we figure, we’ll probably encounter the germ. But we’re hearty folk, and we’ll follow public health advice.
First, the hand sanitizer. The stores are sold out here, so we ransack the house in the name of good hygiene. My husband clips a small bottle of cloudy gel — purchased God-knows-when — to his belt loop.
Here it is. My first corona crisis. Would I rather die of embarrassment or contaminated hands? I split the difference and urge him to pull his sweater down.
At the airport, I gloat because I see no travelers wearing masks. What a healthy lot we are here in Greensboro. Then I see a masked airport worker. My eyes narrow. Is she sick? Or trying to keep from getting sick? Do I ask her? What if she pulls down her mask and says, “Sick.”
We hustle aboard the flight, which is a rollercoaster ride because of thunderstorms. I heave all the way to New York.
Staggering through the airport on the other end, weak and wan, with a can of airline ginger ale in my hand, people give me wide berth and eye me like I’m Corona Mary.
Never gloat about good health.
DAY TWO: 33 confirmed cases across New York state
Our sons look healthy. I kiss their bearded faces and pull their foreheads down to my cheek. Fever free, too.
We ask about jobs, loves, friends, adventures and, you know, whether their employers have contingency plans in case of a viral pandemic.
They shrug, mention working from home, and seem shocked when we ask if we should postpone a family trip this summer. We bring up transportation, supply chains and throngs of tourists doing touristy things. Like breathing.
They study us for long seconds.
I look to my husband for support.
He’s rubbing his face.
I widen my eyes.
“What?” he says.
“Face,” I mouth.
All hands drop to laps.
After lunch we walk, at least 6 feet apart, to the Eastman Museum in the former home of George Eastman, who founded Kodak and who — we soon learn in a group tour — nearly died in the influenza pandemic of 1918–19. He was so thrilled to rise from his deathbed that he went on a 10-year spending spree.
Someone in the tour group coughs.
Later, we drop extra money in the plate at a jazz vespers service. We order appetizers with dinner.
DAY THREE: 76 confirmed cases
It snowed overnight, so there’s enough fluff to go cross-country skiing. I extend my hand to the woman who’s going to give us a lesson. She offers a fist bump. We tap elbows and laugh. New York’s governor has just declared a state of emergency, but there are no cases in the chilly woods around the Finger Lakes. As far as we know.
You can see the plumes of people’s breath out here, so that’s helpful.
For the next several hours, we’re flushed, sweaty and struggling for air, but it’s all good as we glide through the wilderness, our minds fixed on paths not pathogens . . .
Until that night when a Lyft driver mentions she’s been ferrying students to the airport for spring break. Where are they headed?
“Anywhere there’s no virus,” she says.
DAY FOUR: 105 confirmed cases
There’s nary a mask to be seen on the streets.
We duck into a used bookstore where the towering stacks lean toward avalanche. It’s easily the most life-threatening situation we’ve faced the whole trip.
And yet we stay, flipping through fiction, cracking open history, ruffling biography. I present three volumes to the proprietor. He snuffles, and I, who have just handled acres of used book covers, take a step back and hand him cash — cash! — with a straight arm.
I hold my breath, exhaling only when an Uber car arrives to take us to the airport hours later.
The driver’s name is Sun. I catch another breath.
“I scare!” he says after we’re underway.
Has he read my thoughts?
“You mean people are scared of you?” I venture.
“NOOO! I Vietnamese, not Chinese! I pick up Chinese girl. I say, ‘No kill me!’ No kill me!’”
He picks up a small aerosol can and clouds the air.
“What’s that?” I squeak. He hands me the can.
It’s Black Ice, a musky sweet air freshener that smells vaguely of a disco I frequented in 1980.
From the speaker behind my head, Bruce Springsteen grinds out “Born to Run.”
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
“Good idea,” I say, handing the can back to Sun and breathing deeply. OH
Maria Johnson can be reached only at email@example.com, while she self-quarantines.