THE QUARANTINE CLOCK
8:30 am: Your feathers have been plucked.
That’s how you feel every day of this blasted pandemic. It’s the second year of restrictions and society is torn asunder. You are mentally cracked in half. Physically, you exploded the first year. The Quarantine Fifteen, they called it – a sad echo of your Freshman Fifteen two decades before. Now you’re a sophomore, emotionally stunted by frigid loneliness. The world has devolved into an oyster bereft of merry swords. Talents to cultivate during the cycles of isolation include becoming an inventor (though you’re not good at engineering things); being a philosopher (you are not perceptive); producing original writing (that wasn’t working even before the virus); becoming a medical student (no grit); making new virtual friends and starting a revolution (you’re no leader). You text dwindling acquaintances about society’s moot changes. We were always the majority nails in a minority hammer politic, you remind them. We’ll all be dead ducks soon enough. They aren’t amused by the banter. Your words sting and they stop responding. Pandemic humor has no luster. The last stand-up comedy show you streamed was void of laughter. It was poignant – all commentary in a stew of marginal depth. In two more years, parody will be vintage – like our liberties.
9:30 am: Is that static in your ears?
Nope. The ominous hum is an indicator of COVID-19’s diffusion into the very marrow of our reality, possibly even the marrow of our bones. You’re not bemused by this cacotopian (more like cacatopian) trance that’s left everyone choking in the dust, or water droplets, or viral swarms, or whatever. Post-pandemic, post-Corona, post-vaccines – everything is posting. You try to post, like really dig both heals down on the pre-pandemic ways. Bring the pre back, you bellow to the world outside the window, but the pleas are drowned out by static again. Nobody’s outside to hear. You shut the window, flip the lock, and yield to the gravity of restrictions.
10:30 am: Fact Checker Checkers.
You try to post about the pre on social media but the lackeys that police your online presence do not allow it. Minutes pass before a gray message with gaunt font apparates on the screen, interrupting your attempts to wedge more pre onto the platform: Your account has been suspended while we review whether content you posted violates our community’s standards. You read the message five times. There’s no date. You are banished indefinitely. People are such menaces. You bet nobody’s checking the checkers. Without social media obligations, you’re free to research the most oppressive regimes of our time. Turns out that modern governments are monochromatic, oppression being their singular theme, so you probe the Web for ancient ruthless leaders. You come across Tamerlane (1336-1405 CE) and are appalled by how much people were willing to endure from this cruel man. After terrorizing Asia and parts of the Middle East, he bludgeoned the rest of the known world. Aside from conquering, he pursued a unique architectural hobby – erecting formidable towers with prisoner’s bodies. You pursue the facts but can’t determine if he raised the edifices with severed heads, corpses, or living people. Who cares if it happened or not? You ruminate on the how, with calloused disregard for the why. His evil is vast but you’re relieved that you won’t serve as a corporeal component in a Tamerlane tower. Stop complaining, you tell yourself. Things are better now. You decide that the name is an anagram and begin rearranging the letters on scrap paper, hoping to uncover something cryptic, only to come up with lamentare – which means lament in Italian. You pause. This is profound. It is too coincidental and sinister since you also know that Tamerlane vowed to rise from the dead one day and kill everybody. Given another chance, he’d torture and dismember everyone on the planet. It’s been an hour, but you feel as if you’ve lived an entire historical epoch. You breathe meditatively, center yourself, and acknowledge the elasticity of time during the lockdowns. This is what you get from binge reading wizard lit. You see magic, even in cruelty.
11:30 am: Nothing stops human nature.
You recall the abrasive yet alluring gal you met while mid-pandemic barhopping, when restrictions were temporarily lifted, before the second wave of variants hit. Turns out Ilaria was a friend-of-a-friend. It’s a small world, you said to break the ice. Then you chatted, repeatedly mispronounced her name, joked about your idiocy to diffuse the tension, and bit your lip from the mounting attraction. The story goes like this: You each have a drink in hand. You’re gripping the hell out of a frosted beer mug because it’s your first jaunt in ages and you don’t want to relinquish the release. Ever. You’re surrounded by signs saying, Social Distancing Saves Lives, but you can’t lose what you don’t have. Six feet turn to five feet, then four, three, two, and you are a foot apart inquiring about her golden brew. She sips from a pint glass displaying a frazzled cartoon duck in cop sunglasses. Ilaria beats the straw around in the glass until the ice cubes wobble maniacally. Booze sloshes onto the overly disinfected table as she says, It’s something the bartender concocted. Her cute smile is followed by a sinister guffaw. Despite her awkwardness, she’s attractive – a doughty brunette with bedazzling irises that mirror ancient desert sands. The color pops in contrast to the indigo eye shadow consuming her eye socket. She says the drink is called Ebolarona Surprise. You scowl momentarily as she pushes it right under your chin and says, Swig it. She notes your hesitation and adds, Don’t be a wuss. She’s daring you. How dare she dare you? You wrap your desiccated lips around the candy-striped plastic straw and begin to sip, then justify the reckless action to your reeling subconscious by mumbling, End of times. You shrug reflexively, as if doing so absolves you of being remiss. Her eyes urge you to keep drinking. You consume the alcohol plus her backwash, a modern alchemic death potion that tastes like burnt hair. You persevere. The night ends on a positive note in the parking lot. You grope at each other in the darkness, like charged teens who’ve managed to dodge the wrath of parents. Of course, in this case, it’s the government’s writ you’re eluding. Three days later you get a text: Hey! Welcome to the wild world of COVID. JK. Hopefully not. But seriously, I tested positive so get tested. No symptoms, yet. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones. Don’t be a stranger! Your response is more nihilistic than you intend: We’re all strangers at the end of the world. You never speak again.
12:30 pm: Get tested for the umpteenth time.
Previously you hadn’t bothered with tests because you felt fine, or were asymptomatic, but then someone from work died. You panicked yet took no action. All the other employees presented their tests, except you. It’s a matter of principle, you whisper to coworkers who roll their eyes at you. They can’t make me, you growl. Except, they can demand anything because you need the healthcare benefits. The boss gives you an ultimatum – submit to their demands or be terminated. While in line at the testing site you think back to the first year when you were exposed to thousands of infected people who didn’t care about spreading virus. Folks will risk their lives any day of the week for Hawaiian bread rolls. Yet, you never got sick. After Ilaria fell ill – asphyxiating in her own fluids, at the brink of death in the ICU – you called your doctor in the grip of lunacy, hunting for an alternative option. Just get vaccinated, she said. Instead of listening you filled up on internet misinformation and conspiracy again, just enough to let the doubt mount for one more month. You snap back to the present and take note of how the doubting and increasing work demands culminate right at the point where your shoes touch the line that says, Next. The place consists of dollar store canopies supported by half-inch aluminum poles that shake as cars cut through the main road fifty feet away. The teenager in charge of the entire makeshift clinic strides out of what looks like the last functionable corner of a dilapidated office building. This section of town is ruined – a consequence of the sputtering economy. The zipping and crunching of his blue hazmat suit precede a gruff and tired tone. Current events have drastically aged this nineteen-year-old. He says your name and asks if you’re getting a swab or antibody test. Both, you say arrogantly, I’ve got insurance. The swab is intrusive but mainly tickles. He then demands to see your flesh, pricks you, and places your vialed cells in a biohazard baggie. How much are you getting paid for this? you ask boldly and a bit muffled through your cloth mask. The teen pauses and coldly says, Nothing, I’m a volunteer. Your heart and confidence sink to the cracked concrete. How lucky for you, is all you can think to say. He points at some shabby fold out chairs in the middle of a nearby parking space, and says, Results in twenty minutes. You pull out the new book you’re about to start and smirk at what you’d carelessly grabbed from your stacks: 1984 by George Orwell. 1984 was the year you and your grandparents escaped from a post-revolutionary and wrecked Nicaragua. The bad guy Sandinistas won, thanks to the skitzy Reagan administration. Apparently oppressive regimes have followed you everywhere since you were four years old. If it’s not your human rights being pulverized during civil war, it’s your medical ones being scrambled during the pandemic. Twenty-minutes later the blue hazmat suit hands you a document peppered with hieroglyphic percentages and jargon concerning viral RNA and polymerase chains, as well as IgM and IgG antibodies. He’s kindly highlighted the words Negative (Not Detected) on both tests. Your world sparkles momentarily before the suit says, These are your current PCR results but you could still be infected. The test could be wrong. You walk off muttering about the abundance of wrongs in the world. You arrive at your under-furnished apartment and ponder the state of things. You sit, pour a frothy lager, clutch your chest, and grimace at the gaping sinkhole where your heart used to be.
1:30 pm: False Negatives.
Tests don’t lie, apparently, or maybe just thirty percent of the time. You have your doubts about the teen doc’s accuracy at the testing center. You’d go to the store to verify the results but people are buying up rapid test kits like they are hot cross buns. It’s been a long half-day anyway, so you decide to tell your boss the results won’t be ready until tomorrow. He doesn’t make a fuss because you’re expendable. You decide that takeout from a Thai place will lift your spirits. They always have clever names. You pick a place named Bo Thai. There’s always Mike Thaison down the block, but they cheap out on the rice. Nothing else, just rice – as if grain prices were rising at the rate of oil. You park, realize you’ve lost your mask again, pull your t-shirt over your mouth and nose, and enter the restaurant. The staff’s eyes narrow as you approach the counter. Take out only, says the hostess, and next time pre-order on app. Ignoring her gruffness, you grab a menu from the stack, point to a picture of duck and broccoli, and set the leaflet on the counter. The hostess nods, chucks out everything you touched, takes payment, gingerly hands back your credit card, disinfects her hands, and then points with a gnarly, rheumatic index finger toward the exit. We bring it out when ready, she says.
2:30 pm: Dream a little dream.
The duck meat is delicious but it’s made your tum feel glum, so you collapse onto your bed and fall into a fitful dream where you’ve gone back in time and roomed with Shakespeare. He’s stressed about writing a new play so he can pay rent. In your dream, he’s a method writer who wholeheartedly identifies with his characters. It’s painful to witness his process because he’s so adept. You harbor resentment for his brilliance and efficiency in producing quality performable work on such short notice – during a crippling resurgence of bubonic plague, nonetheless. You steal A Midsummer Night’s Dream, run into a mossy cobblestone alley, open the draft, and glare at the words, Are you sure that we are awake? Clearly, this mental nugget has been clattering around in your noggin since high school lit. The script turns into a bunch of bananas in your hands, which fall onto cobblestones that aren’t stones at all but the crowns of finely cut skulls. Shakespeare won’t make rent now. You’ve ruined history. You step back in horror and, as your heels crunch down on the fragile craniums, cuckoos pop out of them and screech, We-dream-we-dream-we-dream-we-dream-we-dream!
3:30 pm: (For)Get a pen pal.
Pandemic dreams are the worst. They make no sense. You write for the same reasons as everyone else – because the world forgets. Remembrance is important, yet all anyone will recall after 2019 is the 2020 outbreak. Lucky, lucky Mr. Plucky – an old telework acquaintance emails you and asks to be pen pals. You’re both lonely. You exchange numbers and vow to speak soon. She is exactly what you need, you tell yourself, to get through the next month, or year, or however long the 1984 stranglehold will last. What doesn’t last, though, is the dialog. You’re both introverted betas. The first day’s texts are reassuring since it seems you’ve found someone to confide in without the obligation to meet (you live a thousand miles apart). The second day, you ask about her schedule. She responds, It’s hectic, followed by a frazzled emoji. By the third day, you are both in full avoidance mode and can’t bring yourselves to message at all. A week passes before your pen pal texts, I’ve been in a funk, so I’ll be incommunicado as I try to collect myself. You’ve no idea what that means, but it feels like the end of things – end of writing, end of smiling, end of screwing. You never hear from her again.
4:30 pm: Writing is dead, like the gods.
But it’s not, really. Maybe for you it’s like that. The good writers write (and wrote) astounding content, whether it was during a lockdown or some other viral epoch. Ernest Hemingway wrote five-hundred words a day without fail, before the sun shined, and he lived through two world wars. You’ve lived through the most lethargic and decadent age in history. Neil Gaiman writes fifteen-hundred words beginning at dawn, an unreasonable habit he probably picked up from Stephen King who writes two-thousand words a day, also beginning at the crack of the day. Mark Twain wrote an average of sixteen hundred words daily. James Joyce, in contrast, wrote a dozen words one day and one hundred the next. The completion of Ulysses is more of a testament to his genius rather than his work ethic. William Faulkner penned ten thousand a day. That seems unmanageable for your life. You read that Jack London composed one-thousand words a day, beginning at dawn. Though that seems more realistic, you can’t get past the ‘at dawn’ part with all these legends of the quill. You woke up at dawn today, but then fell back asleep after a pee. There exists a pattern of behavior for greatness, but you have no moxie. You sleep through first light, right when the muses are blaring their loudest and best into the minds of the masters. Idiot, you tell yourself, if you want to be great, then wake up earlier, beat the sun. You look up female writers in hopes of justifying low productivity. No cigar. Turns out, you’re just a lazy prejudiced misogynist.
5:30 pm: Only sinners go out to dinner.
You don’t cook anymore. Not that you cooked before the lockdown anyway but now that restaurants are closing at alarming rates you feel like the entire First World is collapsing. Perhaps the dozen dollars for this second takeout meal will tip the balance in the economy’s favor. After maneuvering the app on your phone, a countdown commences. When it’s at ten minutes, you head out to a Whacky Wings and Things parking lot where there are white hazmat suits running around with food bags. Orange cones indicate the flow of traffic, so you follow along. A suit approaches your Civic with the order but then retracts its hand and takes two huge steps back. Mask on, sir, it says, while also gesturing a cutthroat with its thumb. The dramatic gesture alarms you but then you realize that the restrictions of the vinyl do not allow its arm to be raised beyond the chin. There’s a fine line between the newly minted sign for Mask! Idiot! and Die! Idiot! You spit out a few words about hypocrisy but this offends it more, causing it to take another step back. Once your mask is on, the suit reluctantly completes the transaction. By the time you get home, it’s too late. You’re stuck with a plant burger and cauliflower fries – a stark contrast to the double order of BBQ wings and sriracha dip you expected. The contents have been purposely shaken and obliterated. Hazmat suit wins this round. It seems you’ve lost a lot lately - not so lucky, Mr. Plucky.
R.F. Gonzalez was born in Nicaragua. After living in Europe and Central America, he moved to the United States where he works as a writing instructor, investor, and writer. He has written several short stories and two books, an anti-love story and an anthropology text. His other works and contact information can be found on his author page - www.rfgonzalez.com.