09/24/2021

George Choundas ~ In the Covidium

Pleasantville, New York

Day P             

Since the stay-at-home order we show­er most­ly in the evenings. After tonight’s show­er I put on cologne for the do of it. It’s gone ran­cid. Top notes of rust­ed sled run­ner, base notes of a fat fruit left to roll under the hot work­ing parts of a gro­cery cool­er and aban­doned there.

Each day the same as the next. Turns out it’s refresh­ing nov­el­ty, a sur­prise rot.

Day P + 3 

When I was young my father sold hot dogs for a liv­ing. Occasionally I’d go to work with him, ride in the step van to his spot between the Jersey City Medical Center and the Montgomery Gardens hous­ing com­plex. I’d watch him make change, and fan­ta­size about eat­ing all the bar­be­cue chips, and ask to see the starter pis­tol he once showed the cus­tomer who showed him a knife. My dad’s real name is Panagiotis. He told cus­tomers his name was Joe.

I love things with two names. Our par­ents used to take my sis­ter and me to eat out once a week; the place was called Gino’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. All her life my moth­er told me she dreamed one day of own­ing a Lincoln Continental, and by the time she final­ly bought one, at age sev­en­ty four, the mod­el name was no longer “Lincoln Continental,” nor “Lincoln Town Car”—but “Lincoln Continental Town Car.”

Which is it? Forget which, says the dou­ble-named object. Forget being sil­ly. It’s both. Double names are for the replete. I am a thing extreme. I am excess and stu­pen­dous. So much much needs two names. 

This plague, it ruins even the felic­i­ty of a dou­ble name. Is it the nov­el coro­n­avirus? Or COVID-19? The answer is yes. Such does its threat and men­ace sprawl, so fick­ly does it choose and so var­i­ous­ly does it pun­ish, it needs a sec­ond name to fit.

Day P + 7       

I have become a per­son who draws con­nois­seur dis­tinc­tions among bleach wipes, pal­pat­ing admir­ing­ly the spec­i­mens from the sop­ping bot­tom of the can.

Day P + 12     

In the course of each root­less, hap­less attempt to make sense of it, a dark-web part of my brain posits the answer in glow-green-on-con­spir­a­cy-black hyper­text. COVID-19 must be Generation X’s bill come due for the implau­si­bly gold­en era of the 1990s. Oil embar­goes and gas short­ages end­ed with the 1970s. Fears of cold war armaged­don fad­ed with the 1980s. The 1990s were a vic­to­ry lap. Peace pre­vailed, peo­ples flour­ished. Historians called it the end of his­to­ry. Even the cold­est eyes saw a unipo­lar world where America at least tried to be the good guy.

But all in life is a trade-off, and the era of improb­a­ble boon dragged behind it the inevitable rever­sal. The 2001 attacks marred the dream; the 2008 reces­sion man­gled it; the 2020 pan­dem­ic means to mur­der it and bury it in nightmare.

We’ve lost jobs, peace of mind. Loved ones. It is ridicu­lous, then, to notice that the mil­len­ni­als must choose between beards and a prop­er mask fit. That the retirees have been dis­pos­sessed of their stay-at-home monop­oly. That the genex­ers watch their cohort gen­er­a­tions pay a kar­ma tax they don’t right­ly owe.

Is the expla­na­tion facile? Reductive? Yes. Both are its name. It is excess and stu­pid. It is the expla­na­tion from the sop­ping bot­tom of my brain.

Day P + 14 

Monday morn­ing. A school day. I’m in the kitchen get­ting cof­fee. In comes Claire, nine and hazel-eyed. She’s pirou­et­ting and hum­ming light­ly to her­self. She’s not approach­ing to ask a school­work ques­tion. She’s not going to the fridge or the cab­i­nets for a snack. It’s not clear what she’s doing.

What are you doing?

Claire looks at me for the first time, still pirouetting.

Twirls, she says, and twirls back out the same way she came.

Of course. Twirls. 

 

Rome, Italy

Day R   

My cousin Tania lives in Rome. She is an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist by train­ing. In today’s Rome, how­ev­er, all doc­tors are plague doctors.

At least she is accus­tomed to masked patients.

There are a lot of them. Same symp­toms, same diag­no­sis. A hos­pi­tal full of clones. More even than before, the doc­tors and the nurs­es work to remem­ber the patients’ per­sonn­hood, to say their names. They pre­tend it’s not betray­al when death comes so eas­i­ly, non­cha­lant­ly. For their trou­bles they get obliteration.

Day R + 40 

Tania is hos­pi­tal­ized with the coro­n­avirus. Not hos­pi­tal­ized; she’s already inside. She is admit­ted. She trades lan­yard for bracelet.

She calls her hus­band, speaks with both sons. Basically it’s a very long shift with a very short patient roster. 

She is all the things you’d expect. Hopelorn, sub­ju­gat­ed, terrified.

Logic used to be a solace. Now it is a demon. Exposure was always both impossible—every pre­cau­tion assid­u­ous­ly observed, metic­u­lous­ly admin­is­tered,  glove, mask, gown, mask, shield, mask, mask, mask—and inevitable.

They give her an anti­malar­i­al called hydrox­y­chloro­quine and an antivi­ral called Kaletra. Eating is out of the ques­tion. Thinking about eat­ing sets off waves of revul­sion. Acknowledging as a notion­al mat­ter for even a fleet­ing moment the propo­si­tion that eat­ing food is a thing humans are known to do means plung­ing into a dark spin­ning infi­nite roil­ing quease.

Day R + 43    

Lying in the bed next to Tania’s is an old woman. She tells Tania about her life in scat­tered pieces. She is alert. But speak­ing more than a few sen­tences exhausts her. It’s up to Tania to put the pieces in order.

Day R + 45    

The old woman is not doing well. At night, Tania goes over and caress­es the side of the woman’s head, brush­ing light­ly through her white hair, thin but so soft. Tania also holds the woman’s hand. Now and then the woman squeezes briefly, hard. It’s as clear as if she were speak­ing the words.

Don’t leave me.

Day R + 46    

The old woman pass­es away. Tania watch­es as they put her in a bag, as they zip the bag almost closed, as they spray the inside of the bag, fill the bag with spray, keep spray­ing, as still they spray even after nobody could doubt there is enough spray. Stop spray­ing. Looking away is the same as leav­ing. Tania watch­es as they lift the bag and gur­ney it away. The gur­ney does not clat­ter; it glides smooth, like every­thing is just as it should be. The gur­ney is a liar.

Day R + 48    

At the dis­charge desk, a nurse—a colleague—regards her. She has nev­er seen a look like this before. It is an elec­tri­fy­ing mix of warmth and pity and envy and frank delight. He says to her:

You’ve returned to life.

Tania leaves the hos­pi­tal, walks home. It is the walk of her life. She is over­whelmed by the kind­ness of the air. There’s so much of it, car­ry­ing sun, end­less. She can­not repay the air.

 

Hollywood, California

Day H            

In the covid­i­um, every night is Movie Night. My wife Cathy and Claire get the couch, Peter the plush red chair. I get the leather chair against the wall.

Blade Runner: People in the future are so tired and tired of things—and there are a lot of things, buzzing and blink­ing and mak­ing peo­ple tired—that every sen­tence or piece of dia­logue comes after a pause of between ten and fif­teen minutes.

Day H + 2 

Terminator 2: Things are not what they seem. The clean-cut gen­tle­man wear­ing a police uni­form is a slaugh­ter machine. He’s made of liq­uid, which seems weak, but in fact proves near-invincible.

Day H + 3      

The Blackcoat’s Daughter: Prep school stu­dents stuck on cam­pus after the end of the semes­ter start wor­ship­ping the fur­nace in the base­ment and kill peo­ple, too.

Peter is four­teen and Claire, you know already, is nine. Cathy and I have a work­ing the­o­ry that films depict­ing a real­i­ty bleak­er than the covid­i­um can’t help but be uplifting.

A work­ing the­o­ry is not the same as a the­o­ry that works.

Day H + 4

Day H + 5

Day H + 6      

Titanic: Three nights. It’s a long-ass movie.

It’s also a mere­ly sen­sa­tion­al movie, made inter­est­ing by a sin­gle detail.

Jack tells Rose to meet him at the ship’s clock and waits—but  fac­ing the clock. We assume he can’t stand the idea she might not come.

Later, as the ship sinks, Mister Andrews, the ship’s design­er, loi­ters near the clock in a kind of fugue—paying no atten­tion to the cant­i­ng decks, the flee­ing pas­sen­gers—fac­ing the clock. We assume he’s lost his mind.

Still lat­er, the 102-year-old Rose dies peace­ful­ly in bed, and in the after­life that follows—a sequence ecsta­t­ic and aglow—the ship’s cap­tain and crew and pas­sen­gers, very much alive, greet her in the Grand Hall with bows and beam­ing smiles, and there, at the top of the stair­case, stands Jack. Facing the clock.

The clock, we real­ize, rep­re­sents nei­ther des­per­a­tion nor psy­chosis. It stands for fate; inevitabil­i­ty; sur­ren­der.  They face the clock because the every­day around them, the world of sweat and fur­ni­ture, has fall­en away, final­ly imma­te­r­i­al. The inevitable reigns. Facing the clock is look­ing away. Looking away is the same as leaving.

The old life cants unrec­og­niz­able under our feet. No longer can we con­trive sig­nif­i­cance. No longer can we book appoint­ments to be clam­ored for, trav­el to feel indis­pens­able. In the covid­i­um, we face the clocks, the cal­en­dars, the news, the phones, the zooms, the sim­u­lacra. The every­day world shrinks away. We cede to the inevitable.

Claire is scan­dal­ized at see­ing a price­less gem tossed into the ocean. Peter insists he would “rock” Billy Zane, with or with­out weapons.

Day H + 8      

Matilda: Nothing bleak about it. We watch it because it’s bril­liant. There is no vil­lain more ter­ri­fy­ing in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma than Agatha Trunchbull. There is no come­up­pance sweet­er than telekine­sis, deft and restrained. There is no hap­pi­er end­ing than liv­ing with Miss Honey, sec­ond name Bumblebee, in a well-porched house lush with flowers.

Day H + 10    

Total Recall: A resis­tance-fight­ing-sex-work­er type has three breasts. She bares them. She lets a treach­er­ous cab-dri­ver spy fon­dle them. In fair­ness, the movie is about a lot of oth­er stuff, too. It’s hard to remem­ber what else. The rest of the film I spent think­ing: We are either the best par­ents in the world or the worst.

Day Finally    

Here’s a film. In the post­co­vid­i­um, we eat food along­side hap­py strangers. We approach each oth­er with aban­don. We while away the day with Miss Honey on the porch, mask­less, enter­tain­ing streams of hug-grade vis­i­tors, backs to all the clocks.

Later, come evening and fire­flies, we move to the slop­ing lawn and dare our vis­i­tors to ask. 

Twirls, obvi­ous­ly.

~

George Choundas’ fic­tion and non­fic­tion have appeared in over fifty pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing The Best Small Fictions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Harvard Review, The Southern Review, and Subtropics. His sto­ry col­lec­tion, The Making Sense of Things (FC2), was award­ed the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, as well as short­list­ed for the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, the St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction, and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. He is a win­ner of the New Millennium Award for Fiction, a for­mer FBI agent, and half Cuban and half Greek.