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“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.
DAY FIVE: 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.