MEASURE THE SKY OVER MEXICO CITY
WITNESS MAGAZINE, DISASTER ISSUE - SPRING 2012.
I first heard about H1N1 over sushi dinner in Mexico City. It was just a flu then, not yet tied to swine, nor assigned a proper acronym, only worth a mention at dinner because it was killing people very nearby. “Twenty people,” claimed Chelsea, an American who did research at a Mexico City hospital. She said that some of the victims were doctors. “Scary, huh?” Chelsea asked, seeming to want my agreement.
I am not, never have been, the type to worry. In fact, if there’s one way I’ve rebelled against my mother, it’s my steady refusal to fret about dangers beyond my control. Worst-case scenarios (e.g.. car accidents on New Year’s, salmonella, identity theft) don’t hold up well in my mind. I guess I’d rather be dealt bad luck once or twice a decade than spend those ten years on guard. It’s always struck me as a better way to live.
When I moved to Mexico City six months before, with a Fulbright grant to write, I worried I’d have to start worrying. Mexico’s capital sounded like a labyrinth of dangers. People warned me never to take Volkswagen taxis (the drivers of which were crooks). People warned me never to carry my atm card (any cabbie could brandish a knife and make me withdraw). People added that breathing Mexico City’s air was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and would probably give me asthma.
I spent my first month minding all the warnings. I waited eras for a cab. I constantly ran out of cash. I doused my sinuses with saline solution that felt like drowning in a cold sea. Worst of all, I was wary of strangers who — again and again — proved to be worthy of not just trust but also warmth. La Condesa, my park-studded barrio, was the friendliest place I’ve ever lived. On a typical morning, I’d wave to the taco vendors, swap a buendia with the tamale lady, and cheek-kiss the barista who knew I preferred skim milk. It was impossible not to lighten up; I felt way too at home. And it was just a matter of time before I began testing the rules. Soon, I was climbing into Volkswagen taxis, finding that the drivers of these beat-up bugs were the kindest, most decent men on the road. Soon, I was back to my usual ways: worrying very little.
This is a long way to answer Chelsea’s question: no, flu did not sound scary in the least. I pretended to agree, out of courtesy, and also so we could change the topic. This worst-case scenario, which wasn’t even on the very long list of bad things that can happen to a person in Mexico City, sounded to me like a snooze.
. . .
I go ahead and attend the Party of the Year. Armando calls it that, and also pays, making it easy, sending me right through an archway of twiggy birch tress, bathed purple and cranberry from ground lamps, toward an art museum that pulses with club music.
The Party of the Year has no walls, just long orange curtains that envelop the crowd like a circus tent. Laser lights flit around a packed dance floor. Few people here look like they live real lives. We’re in some void between yesterday and tomorrow, where even women in baggy dresses pass for models. It’s too loud to talk. Partiers of the Year shout at beautiful strangers and pretend to hear what’s said back. I fall into conversation with a guy who claims he’s from Reunion Island. “You could be making that up,” I say. This entire night could be made up. “It’s off the coast of Madagascar,” he says. We’re handed drink after drink by tequila promoters who must have hung these orange curtains, who must have made the birch trees glow purple, who have gone these great lengths to make some lasting impression. What impression can last once we wake tomorrow in a place where twenty million people reach to cover their mouths?
- Google Flu
- Hear What’s Closed
- Hear What’s Cancelled
- Hear Who’s Getting Out of Dodge
- Count the People You Know With Coughs.
My apartment is empty. Not a roommate in sight. I flip open a laptop and give Google the simplest command:
The eighth most e-mailed New York Times article is about a deadly swine flu outbreak in Mexico. Scientists are “baffled and deeply worried.”
I learn two reasons to be baffled and deeply worried in my Mexico City apartment.
One: this flu seems to combine bird, swine, and human viruses.
Two: this flu is spreading person to person.
. . .
I hear the door open. I have two roommates. Both are named Silvia. They could pass for sisters. Except one is a pixie, the other a perfect hourglass. It wouldn’t be hard to distinguish them, were it not for the blue surgical mask covering half the face of whichever Silvia just walked into the kitchen. When she raises her hands up in the air like monster claws, I know this is Silvia #1. Silvia the Pixie. Silvia, Duchess-of-Drama, Rodriguez.
The other day, when Silvia #1 geared up to tell me that the milk we’d been drinking was over-pasteurized, her tone suggested she’d lost a sibling or a job. Most days, my roommate’s melodrama and general excitability are endearing. Other days, they test me. This mask is making her gleaming brown eyes loom huge. Immediately, we’re talking flu.
Straightaway, I give Silvia #1 a look that’s meant to show I’m exasperatable on this matter. “No hay nada que hacer … ” I’m making clear from the get-go that our apartment will not be drama headquarters for the duration of swine flu. “There’s nothing we can do…”
Silvia #1 asks me if I know how many people have died.
I say veinte, twenty, worried this is a setup. The death count must have tripled since I last heard. I suspect my roommate will now have the gratification of shocking me with the news that 598 have died.
“Veinte,” she repeats my number with four times the doom.
“No vamos a ser paranoias sobre …” my sentence trails off because I don’t know what we’re calling this flu in Spanish (Gripa? Influenza? Influencia?), and I’m too miffed to ask for language help right now. Silvia, as perturbed by my lack of concern as I am by her excess, names People We Know With Coughs. She points at her French boyfriend, Enrique, who trailed in behind her in a rose-colored mask.
See? Enrique has a cough.
Enrique — who is in our apartment presumably to sleep, once he touches half a dozen handles and sneezes wetness across the kitchen counter — has already removed his mask.
. . .
I close my bedroom door. I turn on the radio to blot out the kitchen voices. I read that sixty-one people have died in Mexico.
“We are worried,” the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “We don’t know if this will lead to the next pandemic.”
I look up the word “pandemic.” I want the precise definition of what we’re dealing with: “a disease that is prevalent over the whole of a country or the whole world.“
Next, I read about the dead. Most of the dead are in Mexico City. None of the dead are under three years old. None of the dead are over sixty. An expert on the radio helps me understand this as the principal reason to be baffled and concerned.
. . .
I hear the voice of another Silvia. Silvia the Second. Silvia the Hourglass. She’s tugging off her turquoise mask when I open my door, while Silvia her Skinny Twin cooks dinner in surgical attire.
Silvia #2 gives me a cheek kiss; that’s when I know I have an ally in quelling hysteria on the home front. I really hope so. I really hope so when the Silvia cooking dinner shares the latest rumor: “They say it’s coming from the United States.”
. . .
Governor Schwarzenegger is calling for more vigilance at the border. Soldiers in Mexico City are handing out four million masks in traffic. Anyone who looks sickly is dissuaded from entering the subway. The weekend soccer games will proceed, but without audiences. Local radio urges Mexicans to keep their distance from one another.
“There are no reports of panic,” reports England’s Guardian.
I hear Enrique sneeze. I hear Enrique sneeze twice.
“There is no vaccine against the new strain of swine flu,” health authorities say.
A journalist friend e-mails to cancel our lunch tomorrow. David tells me he’s “getting out of Dodge for a while.” Things to know about David: he wrote a book about Mexico City’s underbelly. In it, he portrays in detail the most crime-infested barrios in Mexico City. It’s first-hand reporting. David includes a chapter about express kidnappings — about the time David was kidnapped in a taxi cab. That David is already fleeing the city is the loudest alarm bell I’ve heard.
I have no escape plan. I have no mask. I think about boarding a bus that dozens of wary and pushy strangers are also trying to board. Having no family in this country feels suddenly like a disadvantage. I think about getting a mask. I think about the millions of people who thought about getting a mask hours ago, yesterday, Wednesday night while I hoped Chelsea would change the topic.
“Chemists report they are running low on masks.“
- Peek Outside
- Hope for Faces
- See Masks
- Count Masks
- Type Masks
- Tape Masks
- Try to See/Read in Masks Why You Cannot Put One On.
Still in Dodge and awake too early, I push open the giant door of my apartment building with a conscious wish: I want the first person I see today to be unmasked.
The first person I see is crossing Juan Escutia Street, away from me. I wait for him to cross, pivot, and show his profile. No mask. Good omen, I think, reaching a blind corner right as a man bursts into my view wearing a toothpaste blue mask.
“Buenos días,” I blurt at the man.
“Buenos días,” replies a woman.
. . .
I tell my waiter how delighted I am to see his entire face. As though I’m seeking reassurance, my waiter tells me a doctor has already checked out the entire wait staff.
“What do you think of all this?” he then asks me.
The question of the day. He’s the first of many people who ask me. Saturday is the day for peeking out, then stepping out, then touching base with someone who might have a clearer forecast/take/conspiracy theory/evacuation plan.
None of the above. I have none of the above. I do what my dad taught me never to do: I answer the question with a question. What does my waiter think of all this?
. . .
Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderón, makes announcements from the city of Oaxaca. School won’t open for another week. This crisis, a radio voice claims, can be overcome in nine days, so long as the Mexican people and the Mexican government work together. The highway to Cuernavaca is bottlenecked. Too many people with the same idea: get out of Dodge. Local radio DJs tell listeners to stay calm, wash their hands, and refrain from spreading rumors.
. . .
The rumor of the day is about a dead man who touched Barack Obama last week. An anthropologist named Felipe died from “symptoms similar to flu” one day after greeting Obama at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, where the state dinner was held.
The day of the state dinner, I was sitting at an outdoor café near the museum. The racket of helicopters above was unceasing. Even if you plugged your ears you couldn’t miss how tense Mexico was about security. And to think, all that time — while the terrorists and drug lords and assorted villains were kept at bay — an anthropologist could have been spitting mortal flu at a visiting president.
. . .
I go jogging with a video camera tucked into my sweaty palm. I go jogging to do something and also to get footage. I want people in masks on tape. Of the few humans I spot, about one-fifth have hidden their mouths and noses. The white masks, I notice, look sturdiest — like they could scoop up rice. The blue ones are feeble in comparison: coffee filters on a string.
Once back inside, I pour over my footage: garbage men in masks, little girls in masks, guitar players in masks, gringos in masks. I’m trying to capture what’s so sinister about outside. More than vacant parks, more than noiseless streets, it’s the steady trickle of people dressed for flu. I clip these flu people out of bus windows and taquerías; I crop their faces; I toy with hue levers until their masks glow neon blue. No one agrees on whether masks help; I make it my private art project to show what they harm.
Masks can make a dozen strangers look the same: suspicious, hurried, remote. Close up, masks look like beaks, and, faraway, like long frowns. Masks put too much emphasis on eyes, magnifying them into black beads, or weighing down their dark circles. Masked, people who squint might be smiling. In a masked place, it’s impossible to know for sure.
. . .
The only food left in my cupboard is a packet of curry soup. Last night’s dinner was curry soup. I call a friend and learn she’s in a nearby restaurant. “Come,” she says. “I’m coming,” I answer. I swat my laptop shut, put on heels; both of those actions feel tremendously healthy. Abi calls back.
“Have you left the house yet?”
No, I haven’t left the house yet.
“The police are going down Calle Michoacán, ordering restaurants to close because of swine flu.”
Abi and I haven’t touched base since swine flu hit Mexico City, but I know immediately from her tone that she thinks this epidemic is one-part risk, nine parts paranoia. You can hear a lot in the way a person says these two new words.
Gripa porcina, says the radio.
Swine flu, sighs Abi.
Go home, say the police.
. . .
At home, I keep reading. At home, I flip open my lukewarm laptop.
Pandemics, I learn, happen about every thirty years. In the last 300 years, there have been ten. Three of the last six pandemics were of “approximately equivalent virulence”: 1830, 1890, 1918, 1968…
“The longest interpandemic in history is forty-two years,” explains one report. “We are at thirty-nine years and counting.” I check the date of the report. 2007. Two years old.
We are at forty-one years and counting.
. . .
The only place to get dinner is a supermarket owned by Walmart. It’s called Superama. Any given weeknight in La Condesa, the chic and leafy neighborhood where most foreigners live, Mexican hipsters and expat bankers roam the aisles of the Superama, foraging for the next meal. In the freezer section, it can feel more like a happy hour.
Tonight, though, Superama reminds me of snow days. I grew up in Buffalo: a city that can’t make it through winter without being pummeled — and paralyzed — by snow. Announcements over morning radio that “all public, private and parochial schools are closed …” cued my sisters and I to jump on unmade beds as societal order collapsed, as adults admitted defeat in the face of lake-effect snow.
In times of disaster, you need provisions. Food is essential, but a kind of recompense, too. If you are going to coop up and read about influenza for an undetermined length of time, you might as well have popsicles on hand.
The usual suspects stand over the cheese bins, think hard about tostadas, learn one by one that the sushi’s all gone. Everyone looks sloppier than usual, but unselfconsciously so. The energy of the place is positively giddy. I guess there’s always fun to be had in the mandate to drop everything that very recently mattered.
. . .
I walk home with bananas and broccoli and popsicles and Abi. Abi comes from a long line of Wyoming doctors. In Abi’s company, I find myself taking official taxis and judiciously discriminating against street food. Alone, I do neither. She’s just the person you want to touch base with when the streets are filled with omens in a foreign language. Abi, to my deep relief, is not that worried about swine flu. We’ll be fine so long as we wash our hands.
“But don’t just wash your hands,” Abi relays the advice of that long line of Wyoming doctors, who she’s consulted with today. “Sing happy birthday to yourself twice. Keep washing until you’ve gotten through two happy birthdays.”
- Call Your Doctor
- Ask Your Doctor About Flu
- Ask Your Doctor About Masks
- Find Someone Else’s Doctor and Ask All of the Above Again
- Weigh Safe Against Sorry
I wake up to news that my embassy is closing to everything but emergencies. The largest American embassy in the world has just postponed 5,000 appointments until further notice. “These are only safety measures,” the voice on morning radio clarifies.
. . .
My plan for today was to run a road race with Benjamin. I send Benjamin a text message — not because I have any illusions that a mass of runners will jog six kilometers through a city park today, but because Benjamin is a physician. The road race is my excuse to be in touch with a friend who just happens to have attended medical school and be versed in all human illnesses.
Within minutes of sending my text, I get one in return: “The problem isn’t influenza, but rather collective hysteria.“
Doctor Benjamin is awake. He has been fielding about seventy calls a day from friends in search of medications, friends in search of advice, friends with babies and dozens of baby-related concerns. Meanwhile, Benjamin is fielding requests to volunteer at Mexico City Hospitals, which — he says — are full of people with run-of-the-mill coughs. Their problem isn’t influenza, but run-of-the-mill hysteria.
I try my best not to sound like a run-of-the-mill hysteric on the phone with my doctor friend. I try to ask Benjy stupid questions without asking him stupid questions. Rather than inquireshould I hide at home?, I propose Benjamin and I go for a jog. Today. In lieu of that 10k. He says no, but not why.
On the topic of surgical masks, I’m more direct. I need to know if Doctor Benjamin recommends tapabocas. The line between caution and paranoia might be written in mortal ink; I need to locate that line.
Doctor Benjamin groans. It sounds like the groan of someone who really wants to say no, but doesn’t want to be quoted, or maybe culpable. He does, post-groan, rule no: “Masks are overdoing it.” He doesn’t say masks are stupid, though. I sort of wanted to hear that masks were stupid, so I could lay, definitively, the matter to rest.
. . .
There’s a visible difference between Saturday and Sunday. An obvious shift on the street. Yesterday, masks were the exception. Today, masks are the rule.
I see a photo of Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón. He’s not wearing a mask. The article notes that he is no longer giving kisses on the cheek.
Barack Obama is reported healthy one week after his state visit to Mexico.
. . .
Back at home, Silvia #2 is wearing a mask in bed. Have I lost an ally? No, she explains, she’s only wearing it for a Skype call. Relatives in Columbia wanted to see Silvia looking like the Mexicans in the news. She turns her laptop toward me so I can wave at a fuzzy cousin. The image that Silvia and I send south to Bucaramanga pretty well represents the streets of Mexico City. One mask; one mouth. Big brown eyes; tight grin.
. . .
Twenty million people have their ears to the radio. Doctors and experts and world leaders take turns at the podium, holding the mike, giving the orders. It’s amazing how little they agree. They still disagree on all the fundamentals.
Like whether this flu is taking out the strong or the weak. Dr. Benjamin insists there’s only cause to worry if your health is compromised (smoking, malnutrition, hiv, old age, etc). Others allege that the young and the strong are dying. “That’s the whole point,” people say: that’s what makes this News.
On masks: masks do nothing; masks are premature; masks only make sense if you’re on the subway; masks only make sense if you’re within twenty feet of others; masks protect other people from you; mask protect you from other peoples’ sneezes; masks are pointless because you just end up touching your face to adjust the strings and touching your face is the surest way to catch a virus. We’re all better off washing our hands.
. . .
Popsicles and tea, all afternoon. I catch sight of things that mattered three days ago and have to squint to understand why. I catch sight of Thursday night and want to erase myself and everyone who was herded into that circus tent. The Party of the Year was Swine Flu Eve.
I catch sight of things that matter to friends in other places, far from Mexico City, and I wonder how that can be. How can their minds have room for these other things? They post on Facebook about sports games and procrastination and celebrities they’ve been told they resemble, and the word that comes to my mind is disrespectful. Unless they are close friends, and in that case their caring about other things feels like betrayal. That’s how I know something’s unhinging.
. . .
Back at Superama, I stand in the frozen section with my friend Alexis, nodding at a giant bag of crinkle-cut Cajun French fries. Yup, that’s it: Cajun fries. That’s what Alexis wants for dinner, and now that she mentions it, so do I.
Alexis spots her roommate, a Mexican musician, talking with two friends at the entrance of Superama, catching them before they hole back up at home and eat incongruous groceries. Alexis and I pause to say hello, which means swapping comments about swine flu. This is unavoidable. It’s crazy not to acknowledge what’s crazy (i.e. that the only public meeting space left in our corner of Mexico City is the threshold of the Walmart-owned supermarket).
“It’s making me sad,” I say to the Mexican musician.
“It’s sad,” he agrees. “But interesting.”
“Interesting,” I agree, feeling the need to repeat — because the foreigner is always at risk of treating a foreign disaster as intrigue — my prevailing emotion. “But it’s making me sad.”
It’s a quick and civil tug-of-war between my perception and his. This happens everywhere you go in Mexico City. We’ve all watched a metropolis — a metropolis that knows how to negotiate twenty million citizens through space, both underground and above ground, how to circulate vendors and school children and professionals and street sweepers and hundreds of thousands of taxis — come to a grinding halt. We’re frozen in that halt. And so we have a right to react. And we do, righteously, in passing.
At home, it’s taken two epic days to settle on terms of cohabitating through swine flu. This afternoon, I conceded to Silvia #1 that I’d under-reacted; “La verdad es que estoy asustada.” “The truth is that I’m scared.” To which Silvia #1 admitted she’d overreacted, doing so with her mask removed — for me, a key concession.
However, I added: I still think we need to stay calm at home.
However, Silvia #1 added: I still think you should get a mask.
. . .
Masks at Superama are sold in bulk for nine pesos. Less than a dollar. I propose that Alexis and I split a pack. I would feel better, I think, if I had, on hand, the option.
“Hell no!” she says. “I’m not wearing those things.”
Alexis lived in Nairobi during the election riots. Last week, nearby, she was mugged at gunpoint. It occurs to me that my friend Alexis is the journalist whose stories I want to read more than a person whose safety cues I should follow. She errs stubbornly on the side of non-precaution. I can’t help but respect her position, though, more than my own. Because I have none. All weekend, I’ve been trying to plunk trusted friends along a spectrum, in order to situate myself safely in the middle of all their reactions to a flu that science is still in the process of understanding.
The next morning, though, I’ll wake up with resolve. Perhaps because it’s Monday, perhaps because better-safe-than-sorry has a seductive logic. I’ll go back to Superama, alone, and go straight to the pharmacy. I’ll ask for a packet of tapabocas and the pharmacist will tell me, just as he must have told dozens or hundreds of customers who set out on the same Monday morning quest: “Ya no hay.” There are no more.
- Catch Pandemic in Headlines
- Hear From Mom
- Hear from Dad
- Weigh Concern of Mom v. Dad
- Go to Supermarket To Film
- Feel Quake
- Count the Ways To Crack an Apocalypse Joke on Facebook.
Let’s read the news in bed. Tug the laptop off the nearest surface and give the headlines a chance — first thing in the morning — to forecast better news about swine flu.
“New Zealand Looking into 52 Suspected Cases“
“Second Israeli Placed Under Quarantine“
“Crisis Meeting in Sydney”
I scroll down in search of an article about Mexico. Google News is jammed with stories from every other part of the globe. There’s not a single Mexico article on page one.
“Wall Street Set to Fall as Swine Flu Jitters Weigh“
“Swine Flu Arrives in Britain“
This is not better news about swine flu. This is the first forecast of a pandemic. Pulling myself out of bed to face this new week, I’m relieved that Mexico doesn’t have to sort through this alone. I should feel guilty about that, but I’m way, way too relieved.
. . .
One way to tell that epidemic has graduated to pandemic is by reading world headlines. Another way is to open your e-mail.
“Are you wearing a mask??” Mother, thousands of miles away from the site of outbreak, has contracted paranoia. Fear — quicker than flu — has wrapped around the globe and found the woman who gave me life.
I call to say I’m fine: no cough, not even a sniffle. I promise her the most precarious thing I do these days is shop for groceries. But Mom is prepared to argue. She reads the news. Avidly. Daily. And everything she’s just read about the place her daughter lives suggests she could die there. By day four, the death count has reached 149.
“They say that what makes this flu scarier than other flus is that young people are dying …” my mother shares. If I thought I was in a position to reassure anyone, from ground zero, I grossly underestimated what the word “pandemic” would mean in a world this interconnected. Talking heads are in my mother’s living room.
“OK,” I try to punctuate the conversation. All my life, I’ve been impatient with my mother’s concerns. The more they mushroom, the more mine shrink. This time, I can’t dismiss Mom’s worries. This time, I’m defeated. Maybe it’s knowing what the news will do with this story; maybe it’s imagining a mother, mine, plugged into that constant stream of warnings, worrying herself sick. Maybe it’s the pall over Mexico City, the steady deadening of my neighborhood, a sadness that I try to clean from my mind every morning, a sadness that goes ahead and layers right on top of yesterday’s. Or maybe I’m finally scared. Maybe I agree it’s time to worry. Regardless, by the time we hang up, Mom’s exacted a promise that I’ll do my best to get home.
. . .
My father is not a worrier. Like me, he’d rather suffer some bad luck every so often than skirt all potential risk. As a result, he’s gotten things stolen. As a result, he’s gotten stomach bugs from eating the street food guidebooks warn against. You could call my worry-resistance a rebellion against Mom, or you could call it a direct inheritance from Dad. The occasional bout of travelers’ diarrhea and pick-pocketing — we’d both agree — are a reasonable tax on the freedom to go wherever and do whatever we please.
My father thinks I should leave Mexico City. He makes a simple case on the phone, drawing on a metaphor from his days as a pilot. “It’s like the big-sky rule of flying. You assume the sky’s so big that you’ll never hit another plane,” says Dad. “But every once in a while, it happens.”
That, I realize — thinking of masks — is the very message I do not want to wrap over my mouth and walk around Mexico City propagating: “Disaster ahead.“
Dad makes sure I see it, though: the possibility of disaster ahead, the worst-case scenario I’ve made little room in my mind to entertain. I could catch a flu that’s mortal in a country that isn’t mine. Nothing makes the romance of life in another country dissipate quicker than the prospect of dying where you have no family.
. . .
Masks of every color are running out. Ten steps inside the Superama and I can see that people have begun to improvise. Shoppers wear bandanas and duck behind the stiff cloth. Others adjust Palestinian scarves heaped on their shoulders. I see one man, on this sixty-degree day, in a woolly scarf.
Monday at Superama has none of the giddy energy that late Saturday night did. Carts veer and butt and accelerate with impatience no one’s bothering to disguise. I see white latex gloves gripping the handle of a passing cart. Superama is an obstacle course with a timer. I’m suddenly in everyone’s way.
Then the ground shakes, moving Superama with it. The store manager, looking unsteady in his authority — like a man rising to an occasion he did not at all expect to arise today — tells us all to evacuate the store. I have no idea what’s happening. I’ve been trying to film a lady in the checkout line wearing a green bandana. She’s paying for groceries with one hand, and holding the green bandana over her lips, daintily, like a cloth napkin.
Why are we are flooding out of Superama, staff and customers alike? I ask and learn the word temblor. The word I learned for earthquake as a sixth grader at Christ the King was “terremoto.” The words sound just enough alike to speculate an earthquake just struck Mexico City.
I look around at a crowd of us, snaking down the ramp outside Superama. We look like a band of overgrown trick-or-treaters. The butchers and pharmacists and cashiers and sushi guys all wear masks. Customers tug at makeshift tapabocas, wondering whether to abandon their carts and go home without food. I can’t say anyone looks stunned.
. . .
“Mexicans Cling to Faith as More People Die,” claims a headline in The Scotsman.
“Should We Panic?” asks one in Newsweek.
Barack Obama, I notice, chooses his words meticulously. “This is, obviously, a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert.” However: “It’s not cause for alarm.”
. . .
“Do me a favor and feel my forehead.” Silvia #1 appears in the doorway of my bedroom. “Do you think I have a temperature?”
“No,” I say, trying not to sound angry. I try to sound compassionate as I assure my roommate that she does not have influenza. “Your forehead is not hot.”
. . .
Foreigners in Mexico City look more like orphans every day. Our makeshift families — comprised of one another — began looking pitiful as soon as flu sent Mexicans running back to real family units, to eat hearty meals, to be near the people who matter, leaving us to wander the silent streets of Condesa in search of frozen pizzas and popsicles.
Now foreigners are starting to flee. Friends are going home. Home-home. Real home. Which makes this what? Pretend home? Home for the Time Being? Every foreigner’s sudden flight stings a little, revealing that we have no roots, making clear that this — no matter how much we invested — was not built to last.
- Note Your President’s Change in Tune
- Note Your Doctor’s Change in Tune.
- Pity the Pigs in Cairo.
- Almost Burn Down the House.
- Wonder if Maybe It’s Time.
I know, before I’ve opened my eyes on Tuesday, that my mind is up to tricks. My mind can do this if, let’s say, I’m deeply exhausted and need more sleep; dreams will fool me into believing that my alarm clock is actually a cricket. Today, it’s trying to fool me into a better mood. Today, the hoax is that I’m waking up happy. I lie there with my eyes closed, coming to with a smile already in place, and know it won’t work.
Stuck in one place, I get stuck in one state of mind. Four days of worsening news settles over our apartment like chimney soot. I go to the kitchen barefoot and walk back with gritty, gray feet. I try a jog. Pretending it’s possible to feel healthy in a quarantined city, I trot down Juan Escutia in my most athletic clothing. Knowing I’ll feel wrecked once I’m back inside, I pretend I can sweat my way out of this.
. . .
I pause, mid-run, at the corner of the longest street in the world: Insurgentes. The longest street in the world is crammed with its usual morning traffic. When you pause at the corner of the longest street in the world, you can be certain someone is looking at you. And you can bet that person is stuck in traffic. Without meaning to, I look right into a nearby sedan. Like a magnet hooking another, my eyes meet those of a lone driver.
A glance, a glare, a leer? What do you call the thing we share? How do you know when half — when the most telling half — of a person’s face is gone? I know only that he sees me, that this man has eyes. It feels inappropriate to smile. It feels even stranger not to. I give up on my latest dysfunctional exchange with a stranger, and — missing Mexico City sorely — jog straight home.
. . .
The World Health Organization urges the nations of the world to keep their borders open. Every day, they repeat: freezing the circulation of foreign peoples will not stop the spread of this disease. This disease already belongs to the world. But every day, more countries try to block entry of foreigners. Argentina and Cuba ban flights to Mexico. New Zealand quarantines foreigners with mild flu symptoms in an undisclosed location in Auckland. China sends Mexican citizens back.
“In France, the Health Minister took the extraordinary step of calling for a suspension of all flights from the EU to Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, even as health officials said the death toll appeared to be stabilizing.“
If people won’t take the word of the world’s top authority on health, I’d really like to know who — these days, this week — is given credence.
. . .
Doctor Benjamin sends out a group e-mail. I imagine a blind copy of all hysterical friends. I note I’ve made the list. Our doctor friend boils down prevention to eight key actions.
#1. “Adopt measures of isolation.”
Heeding #1, I haven’t done very well. My mind fares poorly under quarantine. Spanish, a language I’ve spoken since the sixth grade, now feels like a lost cause. I blame tapabocas for making it impossible to lip-read, but the problem is my mind. Certain pathways don’t work. Even my native language feels a ways away. Sentences trail off and never finish. Words come out in the wrong order. Words come out wrong.
“I have cherry mushrooms for you,” I tell Abi.
“Cherry tomatoes?” She catches my drift.
Meanwhile, new words — flu words — push into my mind like bricks.
Eventos multitudinarios. Porcina. Temblor. Cuarentena. Brote. Temometro. Temblando. Epidemia. Pandemia. Manejo de la información. “Más vale prevenir que lamentar.” Cubrebocas. Tapabocas.
Reunion Island. Mass gatherings. Swine. Tremor. Quarantine. Outbreak. Thermometer. Trembling. Epidemic. Pandemic. Control of Information. Better-safe-than-sorry. Tamiflu. Masks. Masks. An island off the coast of Madagascar.
. . .
“We are concerned,” the UN Secretary General shares, “that in Mexico most who died were young and healthy adults.“
. . .
The living want more information about the dead. Five days have passed, twenty million people have followed the halting orders, the hiding orders, the rinsing orders. Now they insist on knowing how a person dies from swine flu — why a person only dies from swine flu in Mexico. Beneath the medical questions: class questions. People of means need to know whether their means will ward off swine flu. Is this a question of access to health care? Or is the disease truly indiscriminate, leaping right over the immense and time-honored gap between Mexico’s filthy rich and Mexico’s dirt poor?
. . .
I have a writer friend, who has a reporter friend, who tells her, who tells me, the only swine flu news I trust anymore. This reporter friend says swine flu victims are nowhere to be found in Mexico City. She’s been to five hospitals. There are more reporters, she says, than sick people in Mexico City’s hospitals.
“The hospitals are full of people with common coughs,” I remember Dr. Benjamin telling me just three days ago. I also remember him telling me that masks were overdoing it. That I could breathe free. Four days later, still breathing free, I continue down the list of Dr. Benjamin’s tips for preventing swine flu.
#2: “Always use cubrebocas in public places.”
. . .
Egypt has ordered the killing of 300,000 pigs.
California has declared a state of emergency.
Pigs — science maintains — are not spreading swine flu.
New York City, authorities state, has the great majority of swine flu cases in the U.S.
“I, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of the State of California, find that conditions of extreme peril to the safety of person and property exists within the State of California and hereby proclaim a state of emergency in California.“
“It is decided to slaughter all swine herds present in Egypt,” announces Health Minister Hatem El-Gabaly, “starting from today.“
. . .
I find a note from yesterday: “almost burning down the house.” The note is circled, like I might have forgotten. And I would have forgotten, were it not for this note, that at 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I awoke to the smell of smoke and the memory of tea.
One or two or three hours earlier I’d put the kettle on for tea. I never drank the tea. I never turned the kettle off. The kettle now wears rings of chalky white, a label that’s ashing off. “almost burning down the house.” An unsurprising footnote in my chronicle of swine flu.
. . .
Dr Benjamin’s sixth tip: “Refrain from panic shopping.”
I walk to the newsstand on the corner and buy every major newspaper. The cover photo of one paper shows a plundered Superama.
. . .
If you could see how sturdy, how unchanged, Mexico City looks from the fifth story roof where I string my laundry. Just take a moment, alone, with this unending horizon of concrete and not-so-tall buildings, and the notion of a virus destroying us will sound like the plot of a science fiction paperback for teenage boys. You wouldn’t believe the difference, nor the calm a person in this storm finds on the roof, hanging socks on a rope against a skyline she knows very well.
. . .
The most baffling news I read on Wednesday is in Britain’s Guardian: “The number of confirmed swine flu death’s remains twenty.“
As far as I knew, the death count had surpassed 150 on Tuesday.
Not to be outdone, Mexico’s Jornada, reports hours later: “In the midst of the chaos created by the lack of clarity, an official tried to explain — unsuccessfully — what he called the ‘adjustment and updating’ of figures on the virus affecting the country. Contrary to what had been released since last Friday, of the twenty confirmed cases of influenza of swine origin, there were actually only seven, and as for the rest, they were never explained.“
. . .
“Relax and enjoy this rare tranquility that we are experiencing here in our city.“
The last of Doctor Benjamin’s eight tips.
. . .
“A portrait is emerging of a slow and confused response by Mexico to the gathering swine flu epidemic,” the AP rules. “And that could mean the world is flying blind into a global health storm.“
. . .
“You realize a plane is the worst place you can be right now?” Abi asks.
I’ve just told Abi that I’m boarding a plane tomorrow. She’s not taking it well. She’ll be on a plane to Wyoming the next day, but doesn’t know that yet. For now, she fights my choice like the betrayal that it is: leaving our family for my real one.
“No,” I tell the truth: I had not considered the danger of air circulating among hundreds of passengers leaving Mexico City. I’ve given up considering dangers. I’ve also given up believing that a person who doesn’t worry is an optimist, a person living well, or freely. I’ve learned, while watching strangers wage war against invisible enemies, that I’m simply inept when it comes to details. I pay attention to all the wrong things. I write down the radio’s every warning and then forget not to touch my own mouth. I’m illogical and emotional. My powers of observation are for telling stories, not defending life. As for my emotions, they’re only helpful when they reach a fever pitch, when they turn to instinct, overriding my principles, and ordering me to flee.
By the fifth day of swine flu, I’ve seen every kind of mask on every kind of Mexican. At least I think I have. Then, entering my building on Atlixco Street, I look across the lobby into the giant peephole of my landlady’s door, and catch sight of her disabled daughter — the grown woman I never see anywhere but through this hole. Usually, she waves at me; I’ll see an eye, just enough of a smile, her hand waving in a flurry. This time, though, I see only the bubble-gum pink that covers half her face. And that’s it. That’s when I know Mexico City is a place I can no longer be. That’s how easily I give up on the breadth of the sky and board a plane bound for Atlanta in a cheap, blue, standard-issue mask.