by Laura Bernstein-Machlay
My family and I said our soppy farewells to Marie a couple of weeks ago. Not permanent ones, thank goodness. Instead, we ignored Michigan’s stay-at-home order and drove Marie to the airport. From there she flew to Long Island, a coronavirus hotspot located next door to NYC with its highest COVID-19 rates in the US, with its jammed-full hospitals and overworked healthcare providers forced to choose which desperately ill patients get access to ventilators. I’ve seen pictures online—like scenes from a Hollywood disaster flick.
My own Detroit’s in rough shape too, the nightmare deluging us even as I write—just as it’s working its way everywhere, to all the nooks and crannies of the US and the world. But back to Marie, best friend to my darling, 19-year-old Celia. The girls met last year as university freshmen, long before this pandemic began swirling like a cyclone across six continents.
Marie favors 80s fashion which makes me cringe a bit (I lived through that decade once, after all). She’s got café-con-leche skin and near-black hair as shiny as a soap bubble. That’s why, she guesses, she’s regularly asked by strangers, “What are you, anyway?” What ethnicity, presumably.
“Like it’s even their business,” said Celia when Marie shared this tidbit.
“Rude,” I said. “So annoying.”
Because here’s what matters: how Marie shimmers through and through. How she’s a charming, chatty addition to our household consisting of introvert-me, introvert-extrovert-Celia, and extrovert-Steven, who’s thrilled by Marie’s presence. As we all are. Were.
Marie came to us when Coronavirus closed the universities several weeks ago, but she has a mother and brother in New York who understandably wanted her home. So now I’m socially distanced from her, too—another bereavement in this time of losing.
I think Celia’s fretting, too. After we returned from dropping Marie at the airport, I asked her, “How’re you feeling about your friend being gone?”
“Okay,” she replied, then went quiet.
I let it drop. But the following morning, Steven returned to our bedroom—I hadn’t bothered to get up, because what’s the point with nowhere to go?
“Just went to close Celia’s door so the radio wouldn’t wake her,” he told me. This is our new morning ritual, to lay in bed and listen to NPR, holding hands while our planet wobbles on its axis—at least it feels that way.
“It’s sweet,” Steven said. “She’s cuddled with her old stuffed lion.”
“Yep. Like when she was little and sad.”
Personally, I think most of us feel little and sad at the moment, in these days of sickness and fear when every goodbye feels like a wound, like a death.
Here’s what my friend just posted on Facebook: It's no secret that I'm struggling to write, to think, to cope. The world feels like it's crumbling. Thousands are suffering incomprehensibly. My anxiety is for the sick, the grieving, and I’m wondering just how close to home this thing is going to get, and what the world will look like after? I went for a walk tonight… The quiet streets. My house is silent.
I get it. Our streets are quiet, too, as our neighbors settle into this habit of losing.
I recently read that an early sign of COVID-19 infection is the loss of taste and smell, and I find myself constantly testing, gauging the flavor of an apple, say, or—more likely—a fistful of jellybeans. Are they as thoroughly apple-y or tooth-achingly sweet as I remember? I’m not sure. I sniff hungrily at shampoo in the shower, or the omnipresent bleach that suffuses my kitchen.
Steven wanders by. He coughs and my fear is palpable, a terror-beast rising to swallow me.
“Are you okay? Was it wet or dry? How’s your breathing?”
“Sheesh. I choked on coffee. I’m fine.”
Fine. He’s fine.
Nonetheless, like my FB friend, I’m mired in anxiety, dreading the loss of what matters most: Celia, Steven, friends and extended family, Marie.
I take our temperatures all the time. Celia runs warm and the terror-beast gnashes its teeth and howls. One of our good friends calls to tell us he’s got a fever, that his elderly mother is in the hospital, on a respirator.
Jellybeans aren’t enough to soothe me. I dip into my store of emergency-Xanax when the fear fills my chest with bubbling lava and I stop breathing—like COVID-19 clutters victims’ lungs so their breaths become labored, sometimes impossible.
But, no. I’m being dramatic. It’s not the same thing in the least.
“Have you heard from Marie?” I asked Celia a week ago. “Is she okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. She lost her phone in one of the airports. She borrows her mom’s sometimes and has her computer, so we’re gonna facetime later. But she says to tell you she’s fine.”
Fine. There it was again. I clutched the word like a worry doll.
I did it again a few days ago, when Celia said she and her boyfriend Aaron wanted to meet at a public park. Somewhere big like Belle Isle, not overfilled with the throngs who took to Chicago’s lakeside and caused their mayor to close access. Celia assured me she and Aaron would remain the requisite six feet apart.
“We’re just going to skateboard,” she said. “But his mom doesn’t trust us. She wants to come along as chaperone.” The indignity in Celia’s voice.
“Oh dear.” I hoped she didn’t think I agreed with Aaron’s mother. “You know I trust you not to take chances like those spring breakers in Florida.” I’m referring to the college kids who refused to heed Covid-19 warnings and gathered on beaches, partying like their lives depended on it.
“Of course not,” said Celia, aghast. “Like I’d ever do anything to risk you guys. You’re not so young, you know.”
I have faith in my Celia, but here’s what I’d never admit aloud: how I also understand Aaron’s mom and her desire to tag along on her son’s skate-date. How she’s likely got her own terror-beast chewing on her heels, demanding she keep her boy in close sight.
I get it, because all the healthy separation that occurred when Celia traipsed off to college has vanished for me in a flash of coronavirus. I believe down to my bones that if I just keep Celia nearby, I can magic her safe from illness, from loss of any sort. Ridiculous, I know.
Anyway, all Celia’s consternation became moot yesterday when Aaron called to say his little brother contracted COVID-19. The boy is coughing, has a fever and feels terrible. Just like—I can only assume—his family does, his mother especially.
I wish all of them the very best.
It’s extra quiet around our house. Laughter is scarce and we’ve lost our usual lightness. So much has disappeared in recent days: our sense of purpose, the freedom to go where we like, our ingrained feelings of security.
Which brings me to one more point I want to make about losing—losing complacency in this case. The smug, deep-rooted belief among many Americans that the place we live is safe, that we’re special, that nothing bad will happen to us.
As it turns out, these beliefs are false. Undocumented immigrants already know it. So do plenty of non-white, non-Christian Americans. Because many of them haven’t gotten to cultivate whole-hearted complacency, to feel fundamentally secure in their place as US citizens.
Which sucks. I say this as a middle-class white woman. And if I happen to be Jewish and have suffered my share of bullying for that reason, I’m still rolling in privilege.
But here’s the thing: everyone’s going to lose their complacency soon enough. Though the Coronavirus appears to hit the poor and disenfranchised hardest (no surprise there), it also doesn’t care less about skin color, faith, ethnicity. It doesn’t take into account some people’s conviction that they have an iron-fisted right to be American—and that certain others don’t share this privilege.
This is the age of pandemic; before it’s done, it will take from all of us.
Like many people, I’m reeling with the loss all around me.
But I still have a lot to hold onto. I’ve got my little family, my mom, my friends. As of now, most of us have been pretty lucky. I have my smartphone and internet access.
I even got to facetime with Marie today, where she’s nestled in her Long Island bedroom, her hair spread like a fan on the pillow behind her.
“We miss you,” I say.
“I miss all of you too. Thanks again for making me welcome. I promise I’ll see you in person soon.”
I get teary then. Marie sounds good, for all that she’s far away. Celia is beside me. Steven recently had a sore throat and some general achiness, but I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m popping more Xanax than usual, and that’s nothing too.
Here’s what matters: we are well enough for the moment. I wish the best for everyone.
Laura Bernstein-Machlay's work has appeared in many magazines including The American Scholar, Hotel Amerika, World Literature Today and others. Her full-length collection of creative nonfiction essays, Travelers (2018), was named a finalist in Foreword Review's INDIE book award. She's been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in both the essay and poetry categories. Find her at https://www.laurabernsteinmachlayauthor.com/ and