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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.“
DAY TWO: 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.”