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I smelled the signs of trouble.
I pushed my nose close to the lobby floor and hovered a while: sodium hypochlorite. I was new to this apartment building, and I’d come to find that on most days, Angel, my eighty-year-old super who cruised around the neighborhood on his electric scooter, liked to bleach the floors every morning. Maybe he was like me: obsessive, afraid of germs and in need of a daily catharsis. Frankly, I appreciated it. Someone else had taken into account how much muck we carry into our homes from off the street.
I had moved uptown to 200th street – the heart of the Little Dominican Republic, just below The Met Cloisters. The scenic vistas of the Hudson River, grassy hills, and formations of schist and gneiss outcroppings make up my backyard: Fort Tryon Park. It is special. My one-bedroom apartment was spotless, save for the spots of the sticky residue left behind from the moving tape realtors used to protect the hardwood during previous walkthroughs.
The smell started to follow me outdoors. I found chlorine deep in the bluebell and yellow tulips of Heather Garden on my morning hikes. Ammonia tightened its grip as I bypassed each bodega, choking me on the way up the subway steps to catch the one train. The stink was everywhere. My schoolbooks had been exposed to dioxins now, and it was evident with every turn of the page, everything around me was turning sick.
I left my landlord a note:
Can we have a chat about the floor cleaner?
I’ll be home by 4.
I don’t hear from Angel. I try and escape to the Brooklyn Flea in search of overpriced battered wooden mirrors and prints of comics in French I can only partially translate. The sunshine in May peeked between the clouds, illuminating what had now consumed me; burning my eyes and clogging my throat. I picked up a scarf and sniffed it. I asked my friend if it smells like a rotten egg or mold or urine. She peeked her head out from beneath the tent of African drums sold as side-tables and sniffed: I don’t smell anything.
Back home, I struggled to hold onto my purchases, but Angel joined me on my elevator ride up anyway. I’m sorry I just saw your note. I don’t clean the floor this week. Not yet.
My house turned to poison. It watched me sleep. It dirtied my fingers when I typed. It seeped into my mat, where I stretched. It stained my new purse. It coated the bathtub, muddied the kitchen sink, followed me into dressing rooms, contaminated my drinks, it traveled by train back home with me to Virginia, it punctured holes into my skin. It snuck up on me. It made me dizzy. It made me unclear. It made me worry. It made me unclean.
When my father told me that he had cancer, I was in nature. Musk lifted from the bluebell and yellow tulip garden beds. The cardinals created a path, and I followed them over to a bench to watch boats glide south on the Hudson River beneath the George Washington Bridge. The sounds of chatter dissipated, the cries of the children blended into the sound of the wind, and the smell of chemical bleach turned to heartache, turned to heavy, turned to relief, turned outward, and looked at me. Suddenly, it was gone. I’d been smelling the signs of trouble for days, and then it found me.
I prayed for levity.
Several months later, in December, I threw myself a 30th Birthday dinner in the West Village two months late. It seemed like the kind of thing a woman who turns 30 would do. Until my party, my mind was a puddle of worry. There was no escaping loads of coursework, the new job at the university with the rock star professor, and the internship at a magazine with an editor who’d become a mentor to me. There was no escaping the weekend road trips with my brother or the solo flights to Pennsylvania to visit my father between chemo treatments. There was no escaping the car or the airplane if I sneezed or coughed – if I was ill, then I couldn’t see him. But I’d come this far. There was something arrogant and dangerous about it: contemplating the blanched color of my skin in the airport bathroom mirror, giving myself little tests. How long had it been since I sneezed last? Was it between takeoff and searching for baggage claim? Was my father really at risk of exposure? I got good at measuring sickness. I got good at measuring signs of trouble.
V sat across from me at my 30th Birthday dinner. I blushed. I levitated. My prayer answered. We had known each other through a mutual friend for years, but this time was different. His cinnamon eyes met my gaze – a mélange of softness and intensity. He put me at ease. We went to a movie with friends a few nights later and a date just the two of us after that. We talked until six in the morning in my bed before I woke up to catch my train back to Virginia for Christmas break. We spent New Year’s together at his farmhouse upstate. He drove me down roads he’d driven all of his life, pointed out townies to watch out for, houses he liked. We shared secrets. We showered together in candlelight. We hugged often. We laughed. We felt right. I felt like we’d loved each other in a past life.
How do we hold fear?
In the second week of March, I watched the corners of my bedroom collapse into itself. I rushed to zip my bag of oversized t-shirts, sweatpants missing drawstrings, and ripped lace trim panties from spilling out. These were my “fleeing New York City” clothes in my “fleeing New York City” suitcase. The rain sprayed my window glass, and the wind rattled my fire escape. I counted the hours. Each one was slower than the next. I’d felt trapped inside this room before. Others were experiencing this for the first time, but I felt I’d been locked inside for months. The light reflecting off the ceiling reminded me of summer. The inside of my rust-colored couch reminded me of the cancer. The shower water hitting the back of my head woke me up to old darkness and I sat waiting until morning staring at the empty vases I could never seem to fill with flowers. COVID-19 had trapped us all, but I wasn’t going to let it make me feel small.
When I arrived to quarantine upstate, V kissed and embraced me in a hug at the train station. No touching! No touching! A woman yelled at us. She was wearing latex gloves and a medical mask. We laughed in the car. We held hands. We promised each other: This will be hard. Let’s try and keep it light. Everyone seemed so anxious, but us.
We cooked stew and poured wine and laughed into the morning until two. I brushed my hair into a perfect part every day, and I wore loungewear that hugged my hips. I tried to keep it light. I posted boomerangs and videos of him cooking and making funny voices online so that everyone would know that just like them, we were doing fine. I was safe and happy. We ran. We biked. We walked through trails in nature and mulled over the temperament of snakes and raccoons. V made me take vitamins and drink smoothies, and he massaged away any aches and pains from the day. He listened to my fears and anxieties while he ran his fingers through my hair. He liked cooking for me, cooking for us. He did push-ups and jumped rope every morning in silence. I liked the way V could sit in silence. He was excited by little things, even the packages he would need to disinfect the moment they would arrive. When we slept, we always touched some part of each other’s body. V ran hot, I ran cold, but we’d tuck a hand under the other’s leg anyway. I felt bad for the woman I was in that other space – in my apartment. I felt sad she couldn’t see how great I was inside these new walls, following someone else’s routines.
By the seventh day of our quarantine, we had a disagreement that turned into a fight. He decided to sleep on the couch, and I was alone in the bed. He became more than cold; he turned bitter. I thought about leaving, I checked tickets to go back to New York City, but then I checked the city’s death toll for March 27th: 365. We can do better. This was just one fight. I thought another home could make me into another woman who was safe from ever being wrong, who was safe from hurt. I thought this new man could make me into the kind of woman who didn’t see the walls closing in.
But in the morning, it was too late. I’d worried he’d uncovered all the darkness I’d slowly been hiding in his shower, in the corners of his couch and his empty coffee cups. In recent days, I consistently asked him if he thought I was sick, and if I was losing my hair. Had I gained weight? Was I being too distant? Did I give him tone when I hadn’t meant to? Were we having great sex, and was it often and enough for him? Was I bringing down his mood?
Was I enough?
Am I enough?
I thought I had escaped her. The woman I left behind in New York City. Her darkness wasn’t something I’d accidentally smuggled upstate where it would fester and grow. There was no escaping her. There was no surviving the collapsing walls. This is who I am.
V pulled my head into his hands as I cried tears and apologized for shaking the image he’d had of me for many years. He laughed, shook his head, and kissed me.
I have a thing for lonely trees, he said, pulling the car over onto flattened hay. He pointed to the lone oak tree across the road. We listened to the song of magpies fill the sky as the sun gently set overhead, skimming the trees on the mountain coloring us a tinge of orange. He placed his warm hand in my lap, and I held it. I stroked the hair on his arms and watched the birds waft from the tops of one tree to another. In the breaks of their song, we remembered together; this is who we are.
I want to touch it, I said. I just want to feel something.
We didn’t need gloves to close his car doors and cross the deserted road. An abandoned barn with a broken window and a modern farmhouse up the hill watched over as we crunched leaves beneath our feet inching closer to the tree. He didn’t need gloves to trace the ridges of the bark with his index fingers while I dug a fingernail into its frozen sap. We leaned against the tree, staring into twilight and wondered how long all of this would be.
Are we supposed to fail?
We didn’t leave the house for the first week. We hadn’t seen another soul for two weeks, to respect the guidelines of the incubation period. By the third week, classes at the university were in full swing and deadlines were mounting. Zoom meetings were starting to feel normal. Wearing V’s baggy sweatpants and hoodies was a newly adopted style because it meant I was warm in his frigid home, not because he liked it. What he didn’t know was that wearing his clothes made me feel close to him. He’d stopped tucking his hand underneath my leg or running his fingers through my hair. He had stopped meeting my gaze when I lovingly glanced over. V was slipping away from me. His work was almost impossible since it required him to travel often, and this was something he couldn’t do. I could see the suspension of work and life and joy peeling away the parts of him I loved and knew. But I had to keep moving forward, and I couldn’t help myself – I couldn’t stop. Why couldn’t I see him?
In the mornings, I’d kiss him, but I began to notice something familiar: sodium hypochlorite. Soon it was everywhere. In his hugs, his bathroom towels, the bedsheets and pillowcases, his boxing bag, his bomber jacket, the interior of his car, his greying facial hair. It was so overpowering, that my lips would leave him as soon as they could. He’d taint my hair and clothes if he touched them, and soon, I was walking around carrying the load of us both.
Am I meant to be kept out?
He’d begun to pick fights, making mountains of molehills. When I’d express my worries from the heaviness of the state of the world, he’d express that he had similar feelings. But his feelings weren’t in response to the world ending; it was from the ending of the image he once had of me. With every small criticism, he’d bruise my heart. I couldn’t be any different or try harder. In the last few days, I decided to plan “date nights” with him to try and reignite the spark. But something felt dead inside, and I was sad I couldn’t resuscitate it. Something cracked, and I’d missed it.
The death toll in New York City on April 7th was at its peak, with 533 people dying in just one day – bringing the total to 6,688. I was afraid to leave, but I knew what I needed to do. A few days later, I returned from a walk. I had been thinking of ways to make him happy, me happy. When I walked into his room, I found him avoiding my gaze again before he flung another criticism that I couldn’t catch. And I knew I didn’t have any more strength to triage this excess pain. So, I left. In the car, I sobbed and, again, his gaze never met mine. I boarded the train in my medical mask, and I wondered if I’d ever see him again. The doors closed, I took my seat, and the smell of trouble left me.
I arrived in New York City at nine pm and stood in Grand Central Station, watching the escalators in motion, devoid of bodies rushing from one place to the next. I looked up towards the constellation mural – Orion, Taurus, and Gemini. I’d missed it here at the train station though I’d rarely come here. But that’s just fitting. I have nostalgia for places I’ve never seen, lives I’ve never lived, and people I’ve never become. I have nostalgia for love I’ve never felt and a love I know they can never give. I hail a cab and tell myself that it will all be okay. Maybe we will realize what we mean to each other and if being together will be worth returning to after some time away. I drive through the city and see the buildings all lit up filled with people trying to keep their calm inside.
We will all be okay.
A month has passed, and his silence screams. My eyelids are from noon to night, wet and heavy. My heart is inflamed. I knew my leaving meant I would be isolated, but I did not expect it to feel like purgatory. The dioxins have escaped my schoolbooks; my bedroom walls are no longer collapsing. The city is still sick, but it’s on the mend. So far, the city has lost over 14,000 lives. At night, I am restless. I toss, and I turn. Thoughts of him keep me awake too. I worry that the darkness I took upstate left me, found him, and stayed there. I worry that in my attempt to avoid exposure and spread of COVID-19, I exposed and spread my darkness to him.
How do we suspend love?
A goldfinch sits on a branch across from me, and together we look out across the Harlem River. The rain begins to soak my face-scarf and sweater, and I think about when our days will get better. I think about when we will all be clean and ready to run free when the butterflies are leading us through a warm grassy field and we can leave the things behind the sun. When we hold hands because we are together again and we decided we could do better: V and me.
MARIA PRUDENTE is a writer and actress based in New York City. She has written about feminist ethics for The Manifest-Station, and her poetry & nonfiction appear in Cathexis Northwest Press and Prometheus Dreaming. She currently studies Creative Writing at Columbia University.