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?
DAY ONE: 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.“