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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.
DAY FOUR: Catch Pandemic in Headlines; Hear From Mom, Hear from Dad; Weigh Concern of Mother v. Father; 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.