Love in the Time of Corona: Covid-19 Diaries

March 13, 2020, Sometime in the Afternoon

Can’t remember when a week last felt like a month, a month like the distant past. A blur from Boys and Girls Club summers, when I fell in love with Samantha and held her alarmingly thin frame between my alarmingly thin arms. Hugged lips while her jet-black hair tickled the divot behind my ears. Declared a forever love, imagined plazas where wind moves to the lilt of accordions and the bitter scent of almonds intermingles with fruity wine to create a concoction that could only be romance. Like the movies told it.

Movies never told my stories of bread for dinner, fire hydrants in the summer or Ma’s abuse (Samantha’s either). If they did, I’d be sitting on a wicker chair somewhere in Madrid, anticipating a reunion with a love barely known, a dream barely believed.

Instead I’m here, two and a half months into my reunion with Madrid and summer’s ending. Tell Drake to cue the interlude. Last week I was hungover, running for Gregorio Maranon, line 7 to Avenida de America. Caught a bus for Alcala de Henares. Colegio Escolapios. Two primary classes before the weekend commenced. Discotecas, restaurantes, bares. Dancing through Madrid until mine and Chiara’s bodies molded to the contours of her mattress. Constructing dreams.

Dreaming last week, awake Monday. Madrid schools closed for fifteen days. Effective Wednesday, March 11. Quarantine yourselves and avoid others, they said, but I met homies for drinks in plazas and parks. Two weeks without work were cause for congregation relaxation consternation, except half Madrid was missing, bunkered between a few walls and just high enough ceilings to limit early onset claustrophobia.

*

March 12, 2020, Early Afternoon

Every school in the country followed suit. Talks of evacuations to the United States filled the airwaves news updates didn’t occupy. Me and the homies (Chiara, Chrissy, Mitch and Zach) played it cool. A trip to see cerezas in Quinta de los Molinos but even they retreated before the bells tolled on Madrid. Metro on the way back empty. Still, I cherished the crispness of the air, how it opened up the walls of my nostrils until they popped like eardrums after ascending a certain altitude, and also the presence of the sun on my face. Chiara’s face flushed red.

*

March 13, 2020, Evening

Bars restaurants clubs theatres all to be closed by tomorrow. Americans were ordered to return home immediately. Chrissy leaves tomorrow morning, Chiara next week. Fulbright pulled the plug, leaving departure voluntary for participants but we know there’s no choice. National emergencies declared on both sides of the Atlantic foster fear and confusion, tears inside Chiara’s apartment.

Ochenta Grados is where her hand clenches mine. I lift my head to watch hers drop like the sun after a blistering day. Food was overhyped, experiments with foam left me unfulfilled. Nothing to say, rather no way to express it, I meandered to the washroom and met Mitch whose usual smile wasn’t a frown but uncomfortably neutral.

In the mirror, tears began to well so I looked into the tiles of the washroom walls and reminded myself that none of this is unusual. Of course, when I decide to leave my apartment in Chicago (which my brother no longer has) and reunite with Chiara (who will soon be gone) to foster an unimaginable love in an unimaginably beautiful city (whose knees are buckling) this happens.

No home to return to. No one to struggle with. I’m alone, as I’ve always been. Mitch says I’m not. Don’t forget about your token Aussie bloke, he says, which makes me laugh.

We walked down an empty Fuencarral, where Mitch crossed for Chueca. Took Fuencarral up to Bilbao, the Quiosco still open. I snapped a photo of Chrissy and Chiara in the thrill of their last walkthrough, then ran into the metro station before Chiara could request another hug. Tears hugged my face.

*

March 13, 2020, one last walk through Chamberi, Night

Chrissy wanted to assemble the Doomsday Crew one last time. Meaning me her Chiara and Mitch (Zach included by default of his crashing in Madrid for the week). Zach and I rode an empty metro to Chiara’s. He talked about quarantining at Cambridge for five days. I’m gonna picnic at a park near my college, he said and I reminded him of the definition of quarantine, stressing the prerequisite of isolation. The irony of pervading emptiness didn’t escape me.

 The walk down Paseo de la Castellana was silent. I paused to admire the sun against la Caixa, whose windows took me to Chicago. The city I left to teach in Spain.

Chicago. My family’s there, ignoring warnings of a looming lockdown. Chicago, not a dangerous city but a major artery of the world’s most dangerous developed nation, could become a battleground soon. Without a guarantee of healthcare or income, who knows what will become of the forgotten many. The US wouldn’t allow anarchy, except the US ain’t the US anymore is it? Not to people abroad whose rosy shades are falling blue but I recognize fear, danger and uncertainty far more than prosperity, and that’s where things are headed. American dreams morphing into nightmares.

I split with Zach and went to Carrefour Express. Grabbed two bottles of vino. Crianza and a sparkling white, for celebration. The brand doesn’t stand out except for their support of the world’s oceans. Conservation, we should all practice it.

On the way out, a homeless man made eye contact with me. Though I suspected he’d drink it away, I handed him the change from my pocket. Buenas noches, I said and watched as the Iglesia synonymous with metro line 1 emerged from Calle de General Martinez Campos. Clock tower brilliantly ushering the coming minute, hour, day.

*

March 13, 2020, Love is Blind

Chiara’s friend Rosalin was at the apartment. Red cheeks, puffy eyes. Despite noticing, I played normal and walked to the kitchen where I spent five minutes pouring a glass of water.

The front door opened and closed, Chiara trailing the echo into the kitchen. Red cheeks. She’d had a shit day. Blood pressure probably flowed like the Missouri or Mississippi or whichever river roars past the pastures she calls home. Russian River, that’s the one in the sauvignon hills of Sonoma.

Everyone migrated to the living room to chat so I wriggled my way between the folds of Chiara’s arms and ribs, nestling my head beneath her right ear. Lips to earlobe. Sigh. Watch closely as her eyes cry. This is too much, she whispered.

What is?

Today, yesterday, tomorrow. Everything.

No one can handle everything, I said.

I just want to be with you, but I can’t even have that.

You have it now.

I want you, no one else. She’s developed a cold sore at the left corner of her mouth. I hate the timing of this all, she whispered before tilting her nose up to me. I need a nose kiss.

I kissed her. Another, she said, so I kissed her again. And again.

In the kitchen, I sipped vino and stirred the mushrooms until they sautéed a light brown, tossed them in Hacendado truffle sauce, alongside minced garlic and shallots which rose to my nose and eyes like the fur of a stray dandelion seed, tears in rush. Rigatoni nearly done, Chiara emptied the pot of water, returned the noodles and grabbed a saucepan for mixing. I shredded strips of fresh parmigiano reggiano to solidify the bond between pasta and sauce. Wince and stumble. Chiara grabbed the saucepan with bare hands and burned herself.

Hyperventilated through glassy eyes, cliffside eyes.

What the fuck are you doing? I asked in a tone I immediately regretted.

I don… I can’t. I just can’t.

Chiara, let me handle this. You go chill somewhere.

She teleported to her room. After lowering the flame, I followed. Stirred the pot and then myself into swift action, ran after her. Back to me, her shoulders undulated into a silhouette of the curtains beside her. Almost as though the wind were controlling her movements despite her longing for stillness. I wriggled my way between the folds of her arms and ribs, nestling my head beneath her right ear. Lips to earlobe. I shouldn’t have responded that way, I whispered.

I know I’m not making this easy.

It’s hard to make difficult easy.

I feel like I’m helping everyone else figure out their stuff while I still don’t know what I’m going to do.

Don’t shit on yourself for being good.

Maybe I’m too good, she said from the lip of my shoulder.

Maybe, I repeated, but that still makes you good.

I wanted to kiss her but the white paste on her bottom lip reminded me why I haven’t, so I pressed my nose against hers until she had no choice but to clench her eyes to her cheeks. Can you serve the food? she asked.

After serving everyone, glasses were filled and we pledged to drink to the ridiculousness of Love is Blind. To mentions of the pods or Mark’s age. Chiara and Chrissy saw several episodes, but everyone caught on quickly and we found ourselves enjoying it. Wait, so are all Americans this crazy? Mitch asked. The entire room laughed.

A decent amount, yeah, I said.

I’m going to miss them. Chrissy and her occasional snort, her insistence on having the root source of every argument and claim made during conversation, how she openly welcomes anything new or different. Mitch, our easygoing Aussie bloke, who insists on a place in my stories as the token Aussie; but he’s become a brother of sorts over the past two weeks and his text tomorrow will devastate me. Chiara, who I’ll have for at least a few more days. She brought us together and so she’ll be the last thread to come loose before I’m left alone, in a three-bedroom apartment, laptop, books, journals, a phone, a TV and plenty of food, fortunately plenty of food, but no one to cook with, interact with, especially not her. Occasionally, I’ll hop on Instagram and spark ten minutes of messaging but then that’ll die too, as everything does and again I’ll be alone to toss darts across my living room, forever aiming for a triple 20 but never landing it. Maybe I’ll land a 19, might hit a solid 25 but I’ll never get a triple 20, so long as I try.

Returning to the table, I’ll write about it and how when Chrissy said goodbye I avoided a hug and with Mitch avoided a handshake, retreating to the bathroom to brush my teeth for fifteen minutes until the lights faded to black. A mirror left before me.

*

March 14, 2020

Chrissy entered the room to say goodbye but I pretended to be asleep. Chiara hugged her, then me and the two of us descended back into the realm of REM where a mutual nightmare roused us but never to speech.

Streaks of sunlight crossed Chiara’s thighs making the fine blonde hairs visible if I put my glasses on, but I’d yet to do so. Still the hairs were there and I know this to be true because she’s left herself entirely visible to my tainted eye. Can I say the same?

The answer is no when she asks after me. Yes, I’m okay but no, that ain’t true. Might help to tell her about the tightness in my chest, how I can’t seem to rest from the distress fastening about my neck. Damn near impossible to breathe. Would be easier to explain it but my panic leaves her manic and them mood swings of mine ain’t easy to manage. Granted she’s willing, I could help her understand. Stop convincing myself she can’t because she ain’t from my land. I read enough to know internalization is a form of masochism and to accept an outstretched hand is the ultimate wisdom.

Enough with the bullshit, I left with Zach to my apartment and then Parque de Berlin. Chiara hadn’t yet summoned the courage to pack her life away. Shouldn’t have brought my basketball after El Pais and El Mundo warned of park closures. But stubborn always governs so I dribbled it along black and white caution tape that transported me back home. Palm on basketball. White teachers yelling at colored kids to keep calm. Never believed themselves to be rowdy but any contrast is bound to cause a stir, so take caution not to let right and wrong fall victim to blurs.

We sat several picnic benches away from a couple sharing a 40-oz Mahou. Green label. I’ve never been able to tell the difference between the red and green labeled Mahous, which was superior, if either, and that realization dragged me into a state of melancholy that glued my head to the end of the bench. Zach was pacing nearby, mouth to recorder, sending messages of suffering to Guiomar, his parents and people at Cambridge. Frustrates me how he pimps struggle.

A WhatsApp notification rang my phone. “Randy…” lay beneath Mitch’s name and my chest tightened. “Funny how quick things change,” he said. It was never meant to be humorous but that didn’t prevent feelings of naivete and anger from brewing inside me. Mitch lied to me. Said he’d ride this out with me, but then bailed like everyone else. The encroaching loneliness that awaits convinced me Mitch was to blame for present and future woes. Chrissy too. Chiara too.

I’m gonna grab a beer at the alimentacion, I said to Zach when he approached.

Sounds perfect, mind if I join?

Nope.

These are my treat, he said.

The woman behind the counter appeared suspicious, if not about my intent, then maybe about my English and its potential implication that I didn’t care who I infected since Spain, after all, is not my country. I could infect anyone, a young man like myself, without ever realizing it. I’m more concerned about the human race and the sustainability of society as we know it, I considered arguing. Except she never prompted me, simply said: uno con sesenta. Handed me two for the road.

Zach placed his can underneath the nearest water fountain and asked if I wanted him to rinse mine as well. Cleaner this way, I think, he says.

Only thing washing that can increases is my chances of dropping this beer, I responded. And I wanna enjoy the motherfucker.

Hey, suit yourself.

Salud. Felt like old times when the city was filled with beautiful people, blankets and corkscrews swarming Retiro and Casa de Campo, empty cans squeezed and released then squeezed again like a bike horn, vendors cueing everyone into the comforts of cheap cold brews.

Just a week ago I sat across from Chiara and her cousin, Chelsea, on soft pastures beside an artificial lake. Helped them kill a bottle of Rose as we waited for the sun to set and the wind to pick up, carry us over to the metro stop and blow us past the center, through Iglesia and onto Santa Engracia. Many nights ended between Santa Engracia and Paseo de la Castellana. Calle de Fernandez de la Hoz 36 is an address I’ll never forget. Angeles at the front desk smirking as I made way to 2F, Chiara in a grey bathrobe with white borders, her ass lifting the back of the robe like a peeping Tom. It wanted me to look and who was I to refuse? So many nights.

Yet there I was, halfway through my beer when a cop pulled up and drove through gravel, telling me with his eyes to vete pa’fuera. Every street still possesses a lamp but their rules don’t apply anymore. The only traffic they usher is that of a virus crippling a world-class city, except they can do as much to control it as we can. That isn’t true because we could’ve prevented this had we abandoned those parks and drank our vino at home. Had we confined ourselves to our apartments we might not be here. But telling someone who expects, and even demands, freedom that said freedom is put on hold is as effective as telling a bird who expects to fly that it must now walk for the foreseeable future. You can’t institute change without clipping wings and any force will be viewed as an overreach.

*

March 15, 2020

Imagine we were alone yesterday, Chiara says. Chrissy never left, neither did Mitch and Zach never imposed himself. But they also never came. They were working or with friends or on campus.

Spring is causing Madrid’s nose to tickle. Mine tickles and you bless me and I say yes. You do. That’ll make you smile and you’ll probably kiss me, please kiss me. On my lips, because there won’t be enough stress for a cold sore. Sure your job sucks and yes, mine is stressful but we’re in Madrid. People love here and cry here and dance here. They grow here. In the universities they grow and also in the thousand-degree metros and even in the discotecas, if you can believe it. They grow in the cafes attached to random streets. Tourists craning their necks over our table and others, onto peoples’ balconies.

Remember your old balcony, on Calle Ponzano? We watched people enter and exit El Doble through the sprouting leaves of a tree. It covered your balcony, so we fucked there a few times. No one knew, not even Luz, your landlady, with her balcony next to yours. It was usually chilly but the warmth of our bodies made up for it.

Just friends then but I guess that’s never been true. Just friends sounds a bit naive when you think about it. You’ll probably say you never think about it because you always knew. I love your confidence. I’m confident we’ll make it through this. We’ve done distance before. It’ll never be easy. I cried for days after you left Madrid. I couldn’t commit to us yet because I knew it would be too far away when July came around. You were there but I wasn’t and then I was but you weren’t. Now we’re both here and no one else is. It’s like we’re in Cercedilla again. The trees are rustling in the wind and the river is roaring beside us. Everything seems rowdy but also peaceful. We’re happy to be together and I’m happy to be with you but I know you can hear it, the cries that overwhelm me. The Madrid we knew, the one we grew in. She’s dying.

*

March 16, 2020, 7:37 p.m.

Shiitake mushrooms and miso paste danced in the kitchen, whirled heavy aromas into the canals of our nostrils. Chiara chopped chives along the bias, whatever that means, and also a medley of bell peppers for topping. Ramen was on the menu. Broth smelled like the garden I never had. Fresh produce is everywhere in Spain. In the States too with the right zip-code.

A strong echo of clapping hands burst into the kitchen after having traversed balconies. They fell into a syncopation dipping through Madrid’s plazas. Chiara ran toward the living room and I followed. Madrid was applauding essential employees across the city for their sacrifices. Whoops, whistles and shouts of “viva Madrid!” I never clapped more than twenty seconds. Felt more worthwhile to chill behind Chiara and watch as the silhouette of my neighbor’s hands cut the darkness like blades.

I thought of my brother, Nico, delivering appliances to wealthy Chicago-area households. Wicker Park, River North, Naperville. Wealthy Chicagoans chilling while Nico bends to lift a dishwasher, his mask slipping, pathogens rushing him like a mob. Something told me he wouldn’t receive praise so I clapped for him, along with my neighbor whose hands never relented.

When it ended, we put the ramen bowls on a tray and then watched All the Bright Places. Watching Violet and Finch fall in love despite the mental and social hurdles warmed me like the broth in my bowl. I like to pretend Finch didn’t end his life and simultaneously his intense conflicted adventure with Violet. I suppose that’s the point of the movie though, that the light others gift us never truly dies out.

Now I’m sad, Chiara said, lowering her head onto my chest. I’m glad you’re my person.

I’ll always be your person.

I’m not ready to leave.

Still a couple days left.

I won’t be ready then.

Neither will I. But we gotta be.

Chiara’s head dug deeper into my chest. I’ll think of you every day.

You already do, I said and we both laughed.

Oh do I?

You do.

Do you think of me every day?

I don’t get a choice, I joked, with you always in my face.

You like me in your face.

I do.

Randy William Santiago

About Randy William Santiago

Randy William Santiago is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer from inner-city Chicago. In 2018 he earned a BA in English from Cornell College, Iowa. Randy primarily writes fiction about people from the inner-city. His fiction has been published in Prometheus Dreaming and is forthcoming in Storm Cellar Quarterly. Recently a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain, Randy was forced to evacuate due to Covid-19. He is the co-host of the literary podcast "Homies of Lit."

Randy William Santiago is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer from inner-city Chicago. In 2018 he earned a BA in English from Cornell College, Iowa. Randy primarily writes fiction about people from the inner-city. His fiction has been published in Prometheus Dreaming and is forthcoming in Storm Cellar Quarterly. Recently a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain, Randy was forced to evacuate due to Covid-19. He is the co-host of the literary podcast "Homies of Lit."

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