I went for a walk with my friend Christine yesterday. We are both seniors, and as it happens to people of our age, the senses at a certain point start to fail. Christine is very bright and fit, but she is hard at hearing, even though she gladly wears hearing aids.
I have a soft voice, but still quite a strong sense of hearing, probably due to decades of earplugs use trying to fall asleep. In most cases the earplugs didn’t do much for my sleep, but they perfected my sense of hearing, as every night I pushed them stronger into the ears and still kept listening to all sorts of rustles and crackling.
As I am going out, I wonder what kind of dialogue we might have, considering my thin voice, Christine’s poor ear, and the two-metre distance between us. Not that anything might be enlightening these days, as all the words and thoughts and actions are depression-inducive-coronavirus-topics, a collective maniacal masturbation.
Christine is in a very good humour and I let her do the talking. I already dread when it will be my turn to start a sentence besides the hmm, yeah, and all the nodding of the moment. I know that I will need to scream to be heard.
As we go, and I shout, and we keep our distance, and we try to pay attention to whomever comes our way, I imagine a magic button stitched to our jacket in which to whisper and instantly be heard, a scafander covering the head, and – why not? – a walking sentry-box shielding the entire body, a sort of transparent frame promenading us across the globe. Nightmare after nightmare.
With all the concern, my voice comes out coarser than usual. I tell Christine that my right lung is compromised, that I have bronchiectasis.
“You mean bronchitis” she says.
“No, no, bronchiectasis, it’s different, it’s a chronic condition due to a childhood illness and I have had it for 16 years. This is why I cough sometime, but my cough is not contagious at all.”
At the words bronchiectasis, cough and contagious, the few passersby in our horizon turn their head, look at me, sprint up and instantly disappear from my view, or better said I disappear from their view.
Where would I go if I needed to blow my nose? If I went to a washroom I might be accused of pornography as people who are peeing, hearing my sneeze, would probably run into the street with the pants halfway down their legs, to escape the droplets and the viruses rushing at them. No, the bathroom is out. I could hide into the bushes, stick my face into the thorny branches and sneeze there. The chickadees and the crows woudn’t run away, and the seagulls would keep hooting up the trees.
That was last time I went for a walk with a friend. I came back home worn out and determined not to repeat the experience.
But I do need to go out, for my mental sanity. I live alone. Yes, of course, I have my harp, painting, books, writing, phone, flowers, my meditation and yoga mat which I resuscitated after decades of neglect, my children and grandchildren who reach out through skype or facetime, but my mind is mostly looking forward to the time of the day when – even though equipped as if on a nuclear mission – I can step out of the condo and into the street.
And here I am, all by myself, gloves, rain jacket, backpack with an umbrella and a roll of toilet paper in (handy to open or close the unexpected door or gate or whatever metallic object may come my way), a hat, a scarf… wait a minute, do I need a scarf as I have planned to use a mask today? Yeah, just in case, better to take one for extra protection. Maybe I’ll take a pair of disposable gloves, just in case. Or better two pairs, as they are disposable and won’t be usable again. Pretty soon for my walk I will need to carry a suitcase.
My mask is on, the shoes are on, I open the door. Oh no, again! I forgot my keys, they are in the kitchen and to go and get them I have to take off my shoes and while doing that my mask moves around and I adjust it with the hands that have right now con-tac-ted the shoes from the street. Oh my, I might have infected them. What do I need to do, run to the bathroom and have a thorough shower with tons of soap? Maybe washing the face and the hands would be enough. I am already boiling, I take off my jacket, leave the backpack, no, no!!!! not on the floor besides your shoes, are you out of your mind? Sober thought: I will be, if this continues.
The keys are in my hand and so is the mask. I don’t panic at the sight of the two together only because my brain recalls that I have sterilized the keys when I came back from a walk the other day. I put the mask on, a scarf over it, sunglasses on the eyes, a woolen hat. Covered up from head to toes I look like I am going to rob a bank. Never mind.
Finally I am in the hallway. My smart-elbow calls the elevator and, once in, presses the button for the main floor, right on the first attempt. My smart-shoulder easily opens the building door. I feel so proud, so smart-equipped in mastering these fundamental survival steps.
The street is large and beautiful. Completely empty. Coronavirus safe.
I remember the first time my mother came to see me in Vancouver, in 1985. She was living in a small town by the Adriatic Sea in Italy, where generations of the same dwellers had been living for years, and where everybody knew pretty much everything of everybody else living in the neighborhood. When she came to my house in Kitsilano and went out for a walk, she observed: “I like this place, it’s really nice, but there is nobody in the streets, I never meet anyone…it reminds me of the cemetery…”
And this is how I feel now. I am in a cemetery.
No one around for the first few minutes. Then I spot a couple, very far away, coming my direction. We approach each other scrutinizing the horizon and the escape routes in between. When they are fifty meters from me, they step down the sidewalk and do a large semicircle so that our ten-metres-diameter-auras do not – God forbids – get in touch of each other. Fantastic. The tactic is repeated again and again. A few people are a bit careless, especially if they are running, but most walkers have learnt the lesson: keep the distance. We respect social distancing so well that going for a walk means designing an arabesque. We go left, right, on the lawn, on the pebbles, on the neighbor’s property, on the concrete that used to belong to the cars, round and round lines, just to be sure that the coronas standing on the viruses of the others do not reach our way.
It works, but… it is difficult to even have eye contact now. We avoid looking at each other, afraid perhaps that our eyes, being alive, could produce and squirt out billions of bullet viruses straight to the mouth, the nose, the lungs of the enemy passerby.
The ground, these last weeks, seems to absorb all our attention. We keep our eyes on it. We study it in detail, it is the wonder of wonders.
Gone is the Canada where people used to be so friendly and say good morning, hi, to each other. I remember my mother again. When on a weekend we went for a walk together and we met a few people, we greeted each other with a large smile or a cheerful ‘Good morning!’. My mother would remark:
“How come? You know everybody!”
“No, no, mum, it’s just the habit here, we do that when there aren’t so many of us around.”
“Ah, and you don’t know these people?”
“Not at all.”
We did use to smile in the not so far away past and search for each other’s eyes. Now we meditate upon the ground. We will get a PhD about the ground.
If I feel strong and energetic, I try to initiate a conversation with my eyes, or whatever part of my eyes that are visible on top of this uncomfortable mask.
But then, a miracle. A couple of orientals in their thirties, coming my way and keeping the 3-5 metres distance say: “Good morning!” Their voice is fresh, welcoming. I answer, with a smile, as if a torrent of good wishes were thrust upon me. I want to rush after them to say thank you again, tell them how I elated I am, but no, they’ll find it weird. They might even stop saying ‘hi’ to strangers in the street and deprive them of the sweetness of being acknowledged in this cataclysm.
While looking at the ground I ponder about how confused our brain might feel nowadays. We do things we have never done before, like awkwardly using elbows, wrists and even shoes to call the elevator; we twist our bodies to open doors, rush away if somebody approaches us, suppress the need to cough to the point of suffocating. Ah, where have gone all these coughs during the various musical movements in the concert hall! which I used to hate, but that now I even miss.
We look with horror at metal and plastic that might come our way, line up forever outside markets and stores, never ever touch anyone anymore. ‘Have I forgotten how to live?’ might our disoriented brain ask. But in the doubt, in this unusual lifestyle, new synapses might form, our brain might become a firework of never before activities. Who knows, we might emerge with new capacities from this abyss.
I keep adjusting the mask on my face, pulling off my glove first and using only my bare hand. The mask is humid from my breath. I simply hate it, it becomes clearer by the minute why staying home is the easiest way out in this chaos. But I am very hard at hearing on this matter. I do need my little walk to keep living.
Once back home, I push the main door metal handle with my smart arm, call the elevator with the smart elbow routine, open the door with my naked hands that might be, by now, ex-treeee-me-ly infected! The shoes are out. With still everything on I rush to the kitchen tap, no first to the balcony, where I leave my woolen gloves in the sun or in the rain, then run to the water and soap, twenty seconds of intensive rubbing with a strong soap, followed by another twenty seconds of vigorous rubbing with a milder soap.
The urge to pee, that till now I have kept at bay to avoid going to the public washroom and the excruciating routine of three days ago, when I unbuttoned my pants and took down leggings and panties and whatever else with only one hand and then pulled everything back with the same single hand – try to do it! – all this while the other hand was holding the phone that couldn’t fit in the pockets full of scarves and gloves and Kleenex and toilet paper for the emergency knob handling, this agonizing urge to pee is killing me at the moment, and I rush to the bathroom with my hands still wet, my jacket still on and all the other paraphernalia, mask included.
After nature is satisfied, my jacket joins the gloves on the balcony, the mask rests on the counter, the hat and scarf go in the fresh air and the condo keys, infected by the hands, rest on a piece of paper. Armed with a bottle of antiseptic alcohol and a disposable cloth, I thoroughly clean the keys, the tap, the door handles, the balcony door and whatever else has come in contact with my, eventually infected hands.
I am exhausted.