The virus is strongest in the dim doziness of early morning paranoia. The scratch in my throat wakes me. I feel my stiff joints and bed-warm cheeks. Fever? Getting up it eases away, just a lingering headache calling out to me now and then – ‘are you sure?’
When I go outside it’s weaker, curled up resting in the back of my mind. But I always make sure to stand 1.5 meters, far apart from others as we chat about, well what else is there to chat about, about the thing that has pushed us all into this role play. There are no other words now. They have been infected and mutated. We have all mutated into virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, virus-deniers, socially-responsible-model-citizens. Out of our mouths pour social-distancing, self-isolation, self-quarantine, lock-down, flatten-the-curve, health-system-capacity, mortality-rate, exponential, symptom-free, handwashing, hoarding, toilet-paper, exponential. The words bounce off each other like the computer simulation of contagion models, turning the air between us corona-yellow.
I had to take a taxi yesterday. The driver told me he had waited 3 hours for my 10-minute fare. I told him to keep the change but my generous tip seemed pathetic. “Health is the only thing that counts” he said. I wondered if I had just killed him with my breath. I had a nightmare about it. Waking with a sore throat. And joint pains.
I go out into the quiet street. The air is still with spring crispness. The houses hold tight to their people. I hear my steps and my inane chatter to the dog as we do our solitary round. I wonder which open windows my words float up through. Invisible people hearing me. My dog sniffs each tree, each clump of grass on the square with care, looking for his friends, their traces too subtle for my nose. But I smell the damp earthiness rising from the ground. I feel it tingle on my skin. We are alone, my dog and I.
My Facebook is fed up full with plaintive expats asking each other about whether they can come back, go home, transit. We have all become expert advisors on the borders most of us so casually hopped over. The closures, restrictions and celebrity sing-a-longs block our view of those sitting in tents just on the other side of the border, without toilet paper, without the privilege of social distance and soap. On this side we share anecdotes and advice. Facebook asks “What if I’m a permanent resident in Australia but my partner is a UK citizen and we are both on working visas in Europe, will we be able to cross from France to Germany?” My government sent me love letters for the first time, urging me to come home before it is too late. But I live here now.
A far-away friend posts a photo of a sign in her local pub: “Buy two bottles of corona, get a roll of toilet paper free.” The pubs here closed weeks ago. No special offers.
The café on the square is open. They have a sign out and chairs blocking the doorway. The first week the sign said neatly that they are serving through the window to protect staff and customers, but welcome us to phone through orders. This morning the sign is more desperate, asking us for our support. The square is empty. There is no us, just me and my dog. So I stand with my mobile in my hand watching the owner pick up and speak to me as she fiddles with a pen. She looks up and we grin at each other through the glass. She is framed by a display of bright cotton masks that they have started selling to go with the coffee and cake. We both say goodbye as we hang up although we stay only a few meters apart. Then she opens the window and holds out a long tray with a bowl on it for me to put money on. The tray retreats into the dimness and then slides back out with my coffee and change. I try to avoid touching the sides of the bowl but it’s impossible really. I sit on a bench in the square and drink in solidarity, the warm frothy taste of normalcy. My dog lies at my feet. I wonder when the café will close completely. I wonder how long the virus can survive on a bank note.
Dina Rosen grew up in Aotearoa New Zealand and has lived in Berlin, Germany, for a long time. She is just starting out as a writer.