Something a little different this month, as befits these unusual times.
On Friday, March 6, a 49-year old woman visiting Surlandia from the United States fell ill. Health authorities determined that she was infected with Covid-19, the novel coronavirus. Her husband also tested positive, although he exhibited no symptoms of the disease. The Health Ministry reported that the man had contact with a Covid-19 coronavirus positive person in New York. The couple was quarantined in their San José-area hotel. They had previously visited the Pacific coast and the northern zone.
The pandemic that had its origins in China and was now sweeping the globe had arrived in Surlandia.
On the same day a 54-year old gynecologist from Alajuela was feeling ill and was admitted to hospital. He had returned the previous week from a trip to Panamá. Health authorities suspected that he had become infected with the coronavirus. Testing confirmed that the doctor, a diabetic, had contracted Covid-19. He had developed pneumonia and was in intensive care in the hospital where he had worked. Health authorities described his condition as “delicate.”
The doctor’s 73 year-old aunt, who had accompanied him on his trip to Panama, also tested positive for the virus and was quarantined in a public hospital in San José. Tracing contacts, health authorities tested a 54-year-old friend of the doctor who had been caring for the aunt. Also testing positive were two relatives of the doctor, a 41-year old woman and a 34-year-old man. They were quarantined in their homes. A 39-year old pregnant woman, a 52-year-old man, a 13-year old boy, and an 11-year old girl who had been in the doctor’s presence were found to have contracted the virus and were quarantined as well.
On Friday, March 10, a female nurse living in Grecia was confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus. She worked at the hospital in Alajuela and was involved with the care and treatment of the infected doctor. Two students at two different San José area schools were also confirmed to have Covid-19. Two teachers at the schools were also found to be infected.
The same day a male employee of the Alajuela hospital fell ill and went to the local Ebais in San Juan de Grecia. There he was tested and confirmed to have contracted Covid-19.
Health authorities declared that they would no longer be providing details of new cases.
* * *
Eva and Zeke went to the feria early that same Friday, as Eva had heard rumors that access would be restricted to a limited number of people because of the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to their own shopping, they were picked up a few things for Rick. He was staying home, both from the feria and from Isabel’s that evening, because of the risk of infection. He had conditions – heart, blood sugar, bronchial – that made him particularly vulnerable should he become in contact with the virus.
Crowds were thin at the feria, and they saw few of their friends. Perhaps that was because they had arrived so early. They did run into Isabel and her daughter Annie, forgoing the usual kiss on the cheek for an elbow bump.
“Are you going to be open tonight?” Eva asked Isabel.
“Yes, I’ll be open,” Isabel assured her. “I hope somebody comes.”
“Well, we’ll be there,” Eva told her.
That evening upon arriving at the restaurant they waved hello from across the room. No hugs or kisses. Only one other couple was already there.
Zeke walked over to talk to Isabel, from a safe distance. “I read in the news today that there was a new case of the virus from Grecia, from San Juan.”
“Yes, but the man lives in San Luis, just down the road from here. The Ebais is in San Juan.”
“Do you know him?” asked Zeke.
“No, and I don’t want to,” she responded.
Only enough people had arrived to mostly fill three tables, the rest were empty. Half of those were newbies. Most of the regulars had stayed home.
* * *
On March 16, ten days after confirmation of the first case of Covid-19 in Surlandia, the authorities declared a state of emergency and that the borders, ports and airports would be closed to arrivals to anyone but citizens and residents. Even they would be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Schools, bars, nightclubs, and casinos were ordered closed, and restaurants mandated to maintain no more than half of capacity. Sporting events and large gatherings were cancelled or banned. Tourist attractions were closed. Government and other workers whose jobs permitted were told to work from home. People were advised to go shopping only for necessities, and only if absolutely necessary. People were urged to “socially isolate” and to stay home.
Eleven days after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, the total number of cases had risen to 50, including 44 Surlandianos and 6 foreigners.
The next day the number of confirmed cases had risen to 69. An 87-year-old man became the first to succumb to the disease in Surlandia.
That Friday – March 20 – Eva and Zeke shared a table with Jack Zakorski at Isabel’s. His wife Sheryl had gone to the States for a brief visit and was now stuck there, as all return flights had been cancelled.
The three of them were the only customers in the restaurant.
* * *
Eva got a WhatsApp from Randall. He had had a return flight to Costa Rica scheduled to arrive on March 22. Due to the travel ban, he would not be coming. The flight had been cancelled. No Estée Lauder muled back for Eva.
Zeke’s sister Maggie and her husband Dougal were in Europe, planning to travel through Portugal, Spain, and then France for three months. In France, they would stay in Aix-en-Provence to help Audrey’s daughter Alani with a move.
Audrey was Maggie’s best friend from way back in school days. She had died at Christmas after a short struggle with a sudden-onset pancreatic cancer. Her death left Maggie devastated. Being there for Alani was something they were happy to do.
Maggie and Dougal were in Lisbon on March 16 when Spain sealed its borders and air and rail travel between the two countries was suspended. They decided of necessity to forego Spain and fly immediately to France where they would stay with Alani. But the flight they booked was quickly cancelled as France closed its borders, too. Shops and restaurants in Lisbon were beginning to be closed. They decided to return home. If they could.
* * *
It was Friday morning, March 17. Ligia and Marlena were there to clean house, and Isaac to do the yard work.
“We’re sterilizing everything that we bring into our house,” Ligia was telling Eva. She was explaining her own family’s shopping practices in dealing with the pandemic. “Milk cartons, bottles, boxes, even produce gets cleaned and wiped. Vilmar, he’s now on vacation from his bus route. They’re cutting the Cajón bus schedule back to once every two hours because the buses have been running empty. Drivers are being cut back, laid off. And Isaac, he’s lost his job working for Darrell.”
Darrell was a gringo living in Chicago who had bought property on the ridge that he hoped some day to develop as a resort. Darrell’s money must be running short, Eva thought.
“We have to met Theo at Rosvil at noon to pick up flowers,” Eva said to Zeke. “The feria this week is only on Friday, from ten to seven, due to the driving restrictions. Theo won’t be there, he says nobody’s buying.”
“Okay, we can leave right after lunch,” Zeke replied.
* * *
Eva and Zeke zipped through the feria after picking up the flowers from Theo in the Rosvil parking lot, shopping for Rick, too. Rick hadn’t left the house now for three weeks, and wasn’t letting anyone in either. Zeke pulled in to their house to unload their groceries, then picked up Capo for the ride to deliver Rick’s order. Capo loved getting out to run around at Uncle Rick’s.
Eva had called, so Rick was standing outside his gate waiting. Capo hopped over Zeke’s lap and out the car door as soon as it was open and headed off sniffing. Rick had a cloth bag waiting and the money ready.
“Hola, how are you doing, Rick?” Zeke said, getting out of the car. “Going still crazy? Doing any writing?”
“I’m doing all right,” Rick responded, starting to empty Zeke’s bag and fill his. “Doing a little writing. And you?”
“A little, not much. Things have been pretty exciting lately.”
“Boy, that’s the truth,” Rick said, paying Zeke for the produce.
“Well, take care, stay healthy,” Zeke said. “We’d better be off. Come on, Capo.”
Capo finished up his sniffing and trotted up to the open car door. Zeke boosted him up onto the driver’s seat, one hand under his chest and the other under his butt. Capo took up his position in the front passenger’s seat.
“See you, and thanks,” Rick said as he picked up his bag, walked through the gate and closed it behind him.
* * *
Ida and Luke sat down at Eva and Zeke’s table that night at Isabel’s. Jack Zakorski was there too. Not too close, and nobody touched. Nobody else was there.
The conversation started out light, but somehow took a wrong turn.
Zakorski was joking about how he would convince Sheryl that they might as well not vote because their votes would just cancel out each other’s, but then he would sneak off and vote anyhow.
“Luke and I never discuss politics,” Ida said. “We can’t, without ending up in a fight.”
Luke smirked. “And I always win.”
Eva leaned over and whispered to Zeke, “I can’t imagine being married to someone with whom I disagreed on something so fundamental. It’s not about politics, but rather values, morals.”
Conversation slid to the pandemic – the number of cases in Surlandia, new cases in Grecia, the explosion of cases and deaths in the States, the response of the government. Zeke, feeling annoyed with his dinner companions, couldn’t help but goad Luke. “So Luke, what you’ve done, are you happy about that?”
“Happy?” Luke replied. “Hell yeah, I’m happy.”
Eva and Zeke were finished with their dinner. They got up, paid the bill leaving Isabel a hefty tip, and left.
* * *
Saturday was Maggie’s birthday. Zeke sent her an email in honor of her 65th, asking also how things were going in Granite Bay, how she and Dougal were dealing with the pandemic. Maggie sent a message in reply.
Things are crazy here, too. Restaurants are open only for take-out, or have converted to grocery stores. Bars and shops are closed. Can’t get a haircut. Gun stores are trying to be declared as essential so they can stay open. No curfews yet, but hospitals are setting up triage tents in their parking lots, and don’t allow any visitors. One of the scary things is thinking about being sick, in the hospital, all alone (with a million other sick, scared, lonely people). We think we’re so civilized, that the government is doing a fine job. Americans are so stupid.
We are doing just fine, SO glad to be isolated at home rather than in a rented apartment in a foreign country, with nothing to do. Like you, we can work on our projects, read, keep pretty much our regular schedule. They closed Folsom Lake to cars a few days ago, so it’s harder to go walk there; walking the neighborhood is not as pleasant but still works. The farmers markets are still open so we can get fresh, beautiful veggies and our freezer and pantry are full.
Birthday quesadillas are being served! Our favorite Burmese take-out for dinner, with a virtual cocktail party with Dougal’s brother and sister-in-law at some point. Thanks for thinking of me!
After returning from Isabel’s Eva and Zeke were sitting in the living room reading when Eva got a text.
“Oh my god!” Eva exclaimed. “Marco died.”
They sat there in shock. There was nothing to do but go to bed.
Zeke was sobbing when Eva joined him in the bathroom after double checking to make sure all the doors were locked and secured. They embraced, hugging each other for a few minutes before finishing up and climbing under the covers.
Zeke slept intermittently and restlessly that night, tossing and turning. Visions kept running through his head as the night spoke to him.
The sky shed tears
and the wind howled
grief and rage
The next morning Zeke sent Maggie another email.
A dear friend of ours in Seattle died yesterday from Covid-19. He had appeared to be recovering after almost a month in the hospital and was at last breathing on his own. But two days after being taken off the ventilator, his severely damaged lungs failed. His whole system shut down as he drowned in his own blood.
His name was Marco Flores. Eva got the text last night from his sister Perla. Marco’s seventieth birthday was just a few days earlier. He spent it alone, sedated, intubated, isolated in intensive care.
Marco had a wife, Amaya, their families both immigrated from the Philippines. He also leaves a son Cesar and a daughter Mari. I remember talking to Marco about the name “Mari” while the baby girl was still in Amaya’s belly. Eyes glistening, he explained it as short for “butterfly.” I still see his face, recall his words: “Imagine a butterfly kissing a flower.”
Marco was first a friend of Eva’s. They met when he was living in the apartment below Eva’s on Capitol Hill, back in Seattle. I first met Marco when he and Amaya came to meet us, late in the night, at SeaTac. They had come all that way to see us off as we were leaving on our adventure to the South of France. I think that was the first time I saw what it was like to have true friends, to be a true friend, that there could be love to be counted on no matter what. Very early I had grown a thick shell to avoid being hurt.
Marco and Amaya visited us on the farm in Oregon several times while the kids were growing up. Seeing them, to me, was to experience a kind of family that I never had. Maggie, you know how it was.
I’m heartbroken. And angry, angry that nothing was done to stop this monster before it took hold.
* * *
Eva and Zeke could get nearly anything they needed now at La Pacifica, the mini-super in El Cajón, don’t have to go down the hill to Grecia. The store now stocked, or could order, most whatever they wanted, or at least something that would do.
The store had a new freezer stocked with fish fillets, chorizo, ground beef, cuts of meat. In the refrigerator case, milk for morning coffee and queso fresco for the dogs’ evening snack. Tortillas and eggs, cracked corn for the doves and pigeons, and squirrels. Hardware odds and ends. Josefín ordered two cases of agua tonica for Zeke the week earlier – Canada Dry tonic water for evening Cacique y tonica.
For liquor they still had to drive to the liquor store El Vid in Grecia, and Super Rosvil for wine and beer.
On Monday Eva took the bus to run to the bank, the post office, and the pharmacy. But the reduced schedule left only about twenty minutes to run errands. If she missed the bus back up, it was a two-hour wait for the next one. She barely caught the return bus.
“Taking the bus is getting weird,” Eva told Zeke after returning from a trip to the farmacia.
“How’s that?” Zeke asked.
“People are still hugging and kissing when they greet each other when getting on,” she said. “And they sit right next to you. There’s no way to keep your distance.”
* * *
By April 1st the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Surlandia had reached 375. Semana Santa – holy week – was approaching, typically the country’s biggest travel week. Not so this year. The government had announced strict travel restrictions: no travel between 5 pm and 5 am, limited to vehicles according to the last digit on their license plates, essential services excepted. All commercial businesses were to remain closed except for grocery stores, pharmacies, and medical services. Driving was allowed only to those locations specified. Almost all public transportation was suspended. The country was shut down.
The next morning, Thursday, Eva and Zeke rose early and had their coffee. Then they went through their t’ai chi practice, by themselves.
“I guess we’d better get our shopping done while we can,” Eva said to Zeke when they had finished. “Maybe we can go to Compre Bien this morning?”
“That would be okay, but the afternoon would be better for me,” Zeke responded. “ need to get some writing done this morning, after the pups and I run down to La Pacifica. We need milk for your coffee in the morning, and tortillas, and dog cheese.”
“Get eggs and a package of ground beef, too,” Eva said. For a while after his knee surgery, Capo needed pills every morning for pain and inflammation. He would only take them if they were thoroughly disguised in a ball of hamburger, Of course, Bela refused to be left out. Now the bit of raw meat continued to be a morning ritual, though the need for pills had long passed.
The dogs hopped in the car, Capo with an assist from Zeke, and they rolled the kilometer down the hill to the store. Capo and Bela jumped out and took off to snoop around while Zeke went in. He saw that a big plexiglass shield had been installed at the front of the counter to separate customers and the checker. Raul was at the cash register.
“Buen día, Raul. Now that’s smart,” Zeke said, pointing at the plastic shield. “Good idea.”
“Zeke, it’s a beautiful morning,” Raul answered. “Yes, can’t be too careful.”
Zeke plucked a partial flat of brown eggs and packages of flour and corn tortillas from the shelves, a half-kilo package of ground beef from the freezer, and a package of cheese and a liter of milk from the refrigerator, sliding the items through the semi-circular opening at the bottom of the plexiglass as he gathered them. Raul rang them up, pushing Zeke’s purchases to the end of the counter as he did so. The total was eight-something mil, Zeke handed Raul a twenty. As Zeke collected his change, a little girl, crying, ran up to Raul and climbed in his lap as he gathered her in.
“What’s her name?” Zeke asked.
“Estrella,” Raul answered. “Star.”
“A beautiful name,” Zeke said. “See you later,” he said, on his way out the door.
“Never forget how much Jesus loves you,” Raul said as Zeke was leaving.