Coronavirus Diary

"We return on March 30, or .........?"

These days, I sign off my emails with “Take care, I hope you’re keeping well”. There’s tension in the air, and it cuts through any pretense of business-as-usual professionalism. I had an interview on the sixth day of the pandemic; my first time using Zoom. I greeted my interviewer with the customary how are you.

“Well…….,” she began, in that rising tone people use when they don’t really know how to begin. And we both laughed nervously because how do you answer that question? The conversation we were about to have seemed trivial; at that very same moment, people were fighting for their lives in crowded hospitals and the rising death toll wasn’t even close to peaking yet.

I still can’t fully wrap my head around how fast life has changed in the last two weeks. We received the first of many emails from the school administration on Thursday night, telling us that classes the next day were cancelled. Sweet, I thought, a day off! Then on Friday, the health minister announced that all universities and schools would be closed for the rest of the month, at best.

It’s a strange, morbid feeling, to realize that you won’t be seeing someone again. Many of my coursemates who were graduating this semester have packed up and gone home. Some of them occupied the nebulous space between ‘acquaintance’ and ‘friend’; the kind of relationship where we could comfortably chat whenever we met, but if we never saw each other again, nothing would really change. Even so, the premature end to the regularity of our interactions felt unjust.

As for me, I’ve chosen to stay. I decided not to make the 14,000 km journey home that would take me through a septic minefield of planes and airports. Yet as borders have begun to close and airlines shut down flight paths, it’s looking less like a choice. I don’t know if I made the right decision; if this pandemic has demonstrated anything, it’s that the choices we make put us on trajectories that we have to live with.

I lamented this to my supervisor at our scheduled meeting. The conversation had turned to the inescapable reality, just as all conversations seem to do nowadays. “I’m glad–” he paused, gazing contemplatively somewhere over the webcam, “yes, I’m glad you’re still here.” In this previous week, I’ve talked to my family more than I have all semester, reconnected with old friends, and chatted with what used to be mere acquaintaces. I will be the first to admit that I’m not the best at maintaing relationships. All I can say is, I’m glad they’re still here.

A light drizzle turned to rain as I walked home from a grocery run, and I watched the people ahead of me scurry toward a bus stop for shelter. As it filled up, the man reaching it a little later slowed his stride. The four or so people already inside stood at an awkward distance from one another: not quite the recommended two arms-length apart, but not recklessly close either. Here was a dilemma: to make space for a stranger sheltering from the downpour? or to, amidst this pandemic, responsibly maintain social distance? I watched the man hesitate, then step in.

Today, Quebec’s confirmed cases spiked to 628; gatherings of more than two people who don’t live together have been banned. The expected date for the university to reopen keeps getting pushed back. I already miss the simple pleasure of being in a crowd. Sitting down to write at my dining table, alone, lacks the magic of sitting down at a bustling cafe, alone. I miss the serendipity of running into a friend while crossing campus. It’s terribly daunting just thinking about how long this might last. But in this indefinite interregnum, Emily Dickinson’s words bring me comfort:

Forever – is composed of Nows –

‘Tis not a different time –

Except for Infiniteness –

And Latitude of Home –

Take care, friend, I hope you’re keeping well.