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Social Distance

March 2020

On that last day that no one knew was the last day, I saw Nicole Menendez (not her real name) leave the lecture hall to walk over to the small basement classroom in which we held our twice-weekly discussions and rushed to catch up to her. It was just after noon and though it was only March 5th, spring had already arrived on the island. Early white daffodils outlined the perimeters of the classroom buildings and the tulip trees, at least the ones planted close to the heat of university buildings, were just about to burst.

Nicole was a quiet curiosity of a student who reminded me of myself at that age. Smart but scared. Her written work was first rate but she never spoke in class unless I called on her. And when I did, her voice was hesitant and almost inaudible, at least to my aging ears. Her answers were well-reasoned though, suggesting an intellect that needed airing.

Her physical presence mirrored this fear of being in the world. She was petite and slim, and with her regular features, clear olive skin and large dark eyes, she could have been a showy beauty. But she mostly kept her eyes hidden by non-descript brown-rimmed glasses and her lustrous dark hair was always pulled neatly into a plain ponytail. She wore sneakers and jeans with forgettable tops and jackets. Most days, a baseball cap hid most of her face.

It was hard to make conversation with her on the three-minute walk to the other building. How was the semester going (fine), did she live on campus (no, she lived with her family and commuted from Queens) what did she think of the lecture we’d just heard one of my colleagues deliver (interesting). I was relieved when we arrived to our discussion room, where the class proceeded as usual, Nicole sitting in her usual spot in the direct center of the classroom. She never talked with anyone, I noticed.

After classes finished for the day, I made my way across campus to my rental car, plugged in my phone so I could get a bit further in along in the audible version of a fascinating biography of Frederick Douglass and started the hour’s drive on the Long Island Expressway to the Port Jefferson Ferry. The usual traffic, fast and uncompromising. I parked my car in the lot, opened the trunk lid, traded my work loafers for winter boots, rolled my travel bag out of the trunk and on to the tarmac and made my way to the passenger entrance of the rusted World War II vintage tub that passed for a ferry in New York in 2020. Michael and Leda (man and dog) were waiting for me on the Connecticut side. We began the four-hour drive to Vermont, the season retreating as we climbed into the Berkshires, then the Green Mountains until it was winter again.

Then home, to my little cottage in the capital, where I planned to retire soon, where Michael, Leda and I would shelter in place however long was needed but could also walk the woods and meadows in this most rural of states, free and unmasked.

The next day, the university closed. An abundance of caution, they said. Our medical school experts strongly suggested, they said. Spring break was coming up, they said, and we could use it and an extra week besides, to move our courses online, they said. I never saw that rental car again, though my friend went to the agency some time later and picked up the items I’d left in it. They only charged me for a partial month, I noted somewhat later, gratefully.

When school resumed two weeks later, unsteadily on Zoom, Nicole didn’t attend. The rest of my 36 first-year students spread between two discussion sections were all there, broadcasting from their recently re-inhabited bedrooms in their parents’ houses, returned to their childhoods in an instant. They were grateful to be attending class again, reconnecting with their classmates, doing something almost normal. Almost normal was good enough for the first day. I emailed Nicole after class, as I would any student in such a strange set of circumstances. She didn’t answer for a week but then showed up for our twice weekly Zoom sections. “I’ve been really sick,” she said to me — and looked it even across the screen, blotchy face and red eyes. I think I might have had it,” she said.

Then, she disappeared again. I emailed her, as of course I would. They took my grandma in the ambulance, she answered, and my uncle, my Tío Sergio, and his wife, Tía Estella. They live with us, she wrote. Then she disappeared for another week. I kept writing, saying please let me hear from you, Nicole, take your time, I know these days must be hard, I wrote. Then she wrote, they took my mom’s best friend in the ambulance a couple of days ago. She’d been visiting the night I got sick. A few days later: last night, my mom couldn’t breathe so the ambulance came again and took my mom.

Then, Nicole disappeared for a few more days. I wrote and hoped for a response. Some days later, it came. My grandma and my tío and tía, they are all on ventilators now. And my mom’s best friend. Then silence for a few more days. I kept writing after each class she missed, no pressure, I said. I’m just worried about you. They can’t find my mother, she wrote. She might have been moved from Elmhurst Hospital. Maybe they didn’t get her name right. She didn’t have breath to tell them. We can’t find her. We’ve been calling and calling.

Then silence, another class missed, another email from me. This one went unanswered for days. Then; my grandma died yesterday, Nicole wrote. She was on a ventilator and her organs failed. I try to think it was for the best. She was so sick. My tía and tío and my mom’s friend are all still on ventilators. And now my cousin, who is a nurse, has gotten it. She’s in the hospital. And then, more silence, more days go by.

Then, finally: They found my mom! She’s coming home today. But Tío Sergio, Tía Estella, my mom’s friend, and my cousin the nurse, are all on ventilators. I will try to finish the class, professor, if I don’t I will lose my scholarship, she writes.

My test for Coronavirus, done at an uncrowded testing site in a small village in Vermont, came back negative.

Nicole dropped out of school. I never heard from her again.

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