I checked into the Mariott Residence Inn two days ago. I went outside around 9:00 pm to get some fresh air. I see a crowd at the front desk asking if there is room for them, and they are told no, sorry. The parking lot is full. The tags on the cars are from the hot states, Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Arkansas. The New Yorkers? We wear masks all the time–the other group does not. They wear trucker hats, unironically.
I walked to the edge of the lot, underneath the sodium lamps and the aquamarine water tower that says Yonkers, and sat down and smoked a bowl. After a few minutes, a couple appeared from the opposite end of the lot, near the tree line– a blond woman and her skinny sidekick man, with a thick wallet chain, unlaced hunting boots. In their 20s, no masks, who came too close to me. She sounds drunk and is laughing about the face masks and how plastic bags in Westchester are illegal. She said:
God, this place is ridiculous.
She walks past, breathing on me. They laugh harder when I move away. I’m glad I’m stoned.
I’m here because it’s air-conditioned, and my apartment is not. The central unit is busted. So yesterday morning, I called Charlie, the building inspector, to find out when I could go home, and he said, “Hey, I like you, but I hate, and I mean despise, the management of your building. Hate them, don’t repeat this, but they are cocksuckers. And I’m not giving them a permit to fix anything until I get the right paperwork. Keep your receipts. I don’t know what else to tell you.” And he hung up.
I turned on CNN. A hurricane is tearing up Corpus Christie and South Padre Beach, where there is one of the worst spikes of the virus. Florida’s hospitals are at 137 percent capacity. In South Texas, the dreaded refrigerated trucks have appeared at funeral homes and hospitals. I feel safe in the stripped-down hotel room and wish I could stay here forever.
Larry picks me up at the hotel. He’s my driver from the local car service. He’s 80 with a skeleton head. I pray, Jesus, please let me get to the grocery store in one piece, and when I do, I tip him lavishly. He drives me around in a late model Lincoln. He talks constantly, sometimes slobbering, “That brick building used to be a convent for nuns back in the 60s, but now it’s two apartments renting for fifteen thousand a month. That’s why I’m living in my car. The whole godamned world is crazy. Don’t need a virus to tell me that! Honking his horn, he screams out the window, That jerk just tried to cut me off!” I’m praying in the backseat, Holy Mary Mother of God, adjusting my mask, trying to breathe.
Before work this morning, I called Charlie again, to tell him contractors were at my apartment. He said, “Those pieces of shit still haven’t filed the paperwork or the permits. I’ll let them start, but they better get it together.” And then he added, “You better extend your reservation at the hotel.” I did because it’s almost 100 degrees. I call it “murder sun.” I pulled the blackout drapes, cranked the A/C, and turned off the TV. No CNN, no news, no pandemic. I want it dark and cold.
When the sun goes down, I’m outside again, talking to a man from Arkansas. He said, “To be honest, I fucking hate working here.” He’s an electrical contractor and travels where the work takes him. I said I live here. I don’t care, he said, And that mask? Gonna protect you from an invisible virus? Give me a break. Y’all don’t even realize how brainwashed you are. He laughs. It was a decent night and a relief to be out in fresh air, under the stars, but it wasn’t safe.
My apartment has a panoramic view of the Hudson River, due west. And when the sun climbs over the horizon, around 4 pm, I can smell the heat coming. I watch the “zone of coolness,” created by a portable A/C, get smaller and smaller. By 5 pm, I’m on the floor, directly in front of it. I pinned a dark sheet over a four-fold screen and hoisted it on the windowsill. It’s a semi-amazing fix—with the portable AC, I’m comfortable as long as I am flat on my back until 9 pm; if I sit up, it’s 90 degrees.
I have learned, and it was a hard lesson, that it’s best to let go when things are falling apart. I am not furious or demoralized, or crazy. I am calm.
But I give up.
My Doordash delivery arrived right when I finished work. Perfect timing. I got a giant iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts, and I’m licking the cream from my lips after two donuts. I’m so high from the sugar I think I’m having an orgasm. I deserve something. I need something. I got up at 5:00 am, made the bed, walked the dog, washed the dishes, swept the floor, called about my psych meds, and edited about 7k words. And yes, sugar is a drug. Yes, it is good, it is so good. I even love the neon and pink logo on the plastic cup. It’s erotic. So is the rattle of ice. Oh, baby. You feel me the way I feel you?
Right before lockdown, in late January, I had a stalker, a disgruntled ex-lover, who said he’d remotely wipe out my computer and to keep an eye on my dog because “things can happen.” He texted me the above after I broke up with him. I’m educated. How could this happen? I wrote a paper in grad school analyzing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Tower through a Jungian feminist psychoanalytic lens. But this relationship had nothing to do with my brain. I asked a colleague at work, could somebody really do that? Wipe out my computer? He said why did somebody say that to you. No, I said, I just wanted to know. Not one month later, we were all furiously washing our hands in the public bathroom at work and punching the elevator buttons with our keys.
When the Bubonic Plague swept through Europe, starting at the port city of Messina in Sicily in the 14th century, some people walked through the streets flagellating themselves, dripping in blood. Some people drank all day and screwed all night. Some people prayed, and rich people escaped to the country, and you can read that story in The Decameron. Sometimes, a “dead” person would wake up in a mass grave, walk home and find that their spouse had already remarried. The Plague Doctor, with his iconic beak, was ubiquitous and remains a popular carnival mask in Venice. These things stay with you, and they are always an inflection point. Why should it be any different this time around? This is what I ask myself.
I’m so hot, and not in a good way.
I call my car service so Larry can take me to a doctor’s office for an insurance claim. I don’t want to do this, but I have no choice. Larry wasn’t available, they think he had a stroke, so they sent someone else. He’s young, in his 20s, not wearing a mask. He took a back road parallel to the Saw Mill River Parkway, and we end up in a junkyard. He’s annoyed and says, well, where are you going?
I laugh through the mask, Dude, not a junkyard. That I can tell you.
I repeat the address and a few minutes later, pull into a strip mall. The office is next to an empty shell of a Carvel ice cream store. It’s a ghost town. I get out of the car into the hot sun with all my paperwork from a chaotic ER visit in a South Bronx hospital and one in White Plains and my case number. I give everything to the receptionist and elect to stand in the hallway so I can breathe.
I finally see an administrative specialist in his ugly office overlooking the parkway. He’s in his early 40s, bad haircut, pink dress shirt, and maroon tie. He sits at a fake wood desk. He’s not interested in my accident, its repercussions, or even how it happened. Fair enough. He’s also not wearing a mask. Where is the Plague Doctor when you need him? I sit as far from him as possible. He’s happy to explain why he’s not wearing a mask, but I said hard pass.
Three hours later, I’m back out in the afternoon sun. My LYFT arrives, and we drive by St. Mary’s Cemetery on Route 9– it stretches for two or three miles before we turn west into my neighborhood, set above the Hudson River at a 45-degree angle. I’m so glad to be home. I hope I don’t get sick from the one person not wearing a mask.
The lady who lives in the condo below me hates me. I don’t know why. But she’s having another covid cookout. Except this time, she’s got two grills going and a fire pit. In August. I stood on my back porch and said to one of her grill masters, Hi, sir. Hi. Can you move that please, the smoke is coming into my house. She said, Don’t listen to her. Everything’s fine. And I said, ignoring her, Please just move it a few feet to the left. These windows in this building are crap. And your host knows this. So please move the grill. He does or he doesn’t. I don’t know. I don’t want to look.
I knew that my bathroom, with the door locked and the blinds pulled shut, and the lights turned off was the best place for me. I sat on the floor with a glass of wine–listening to “Closing” by Philip Glass from The Tao of Glass on repeat–every eight minutes, the music started again.
I’ve been in a crappy hotel with a kitchenette for the past two weeks. Every morning I trekked one block to Dunkin Donuts, attached to a gas station and mini-mart. Another heat wave and no room at the Marriott. Same price, but definitely downscale and much further away. The door to the room, the fridge, and the bathroom all opened the wrong way. At the Marriott, there were window treatments, at this place, a short polyester curtain lined in plastic with flecks of brown mold.
I went down to the front desk for supplies so I could get groceries from Instacart. The kid at the front desk gave me a blue plastic bin filled with a tiny 2-cup coffee pot, two forks, one spoon, and two plastic plates. When I asked can I have a toaster, he said, in all seriousness, We’re out of toasters.
That struck me as funny.
We’re out of toasters. Because we’re not at Best Buy or PC Richards. It’s not the local hardware store. It’s a hotel. And it’s not like you can say, well, please order some more and have it sent to my room.
So I said, Can I reserve a toaster?
Everyone out here wears a mask. Nobody stands too close to you; nobody gets on the elevator with you. Dunkin Donuts has a big sign on a Lucite partition that says: DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. We share the same collective trauma. Everyone is cautious, guarded, wearing a mask, and it’s a relief. They don’t want to get sick, either. I feel my body unclenching, muscles relaxing. I feel it in my arms, my back, my legs, the hair on my head. Psychologists call this armoring– repetitive patterns of involuntary tension in the body. Even though the carpeting and the lighting, and the wallpaper are institutional elegance at best, it’s still beautiful.
When the sun goes down, I’m outside smoking a forbidden cigarette, drinking an iced coffee, the stars overhead, and cell phone towers against an indigo sky. Con Ed still fixing the power on another set of lines– and I’m laughing out loud, and I can’t stop myself because the kid at the front desk said,
We’re out of toasters.
Lillian Ann Slugocki has been nominated twice for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and won the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction (2015). She is published by Longreads, Seal Press, Cleis Press, and Heinemann Press, as well as Longreads, Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Entropy, The Daily Beast, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and Angels Flight * literary west, etc. Her latest book is How to Travel with Your Demons, Spuyten Duyvil Press. She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar. laslugocki.com