Sitting on an airplane, suspended somewhere over the gulf of Mexico, I stared numbly at the shapes and shadows flitting over the eight-inch screen in front of me —one I had thoroughly disinfected with a Wet One®. I wondered, was my life so far as real as I thought is was? What if my existence was one more instance of willful self-delusion? Maybe it was; the mirage that was New York could have fooled me into believing that I was far more real and important than was good for me. Besides, I was in the process of leaving. What would happen if I became less and less real the further and further away I got from the city?
Indeed, the barrier between fact and fairy-tale was growing fainter and fainter every second. The city I was leaving was not really New York. My city was not populated by faceless mask-wearing ghosts who lurked in the abandoned streets where the East Village used to be.
Reaching for a comforting objectivity, I told myself that a person was more than a place. I could re-fashion the old life from the odds and ends I left behind me when I left Bogotá. Besides, I hadn’t really left all that much in New York; some friends, assorted pots and pans, the books for my classes, a good part-time job, a trench coat, character shoes, and a much-beloved scooter. So much debris in a city that didn’t care about me, or my debris. Unfortunately, the comforting objectivity offered no comfort; even though most of my friends had left, pots and pans were replaceable, my classes were online, I was no longer allowed to go to work, spring was coming anyway, anything that would involve wearing my character shoes was cancelled, and I would not be allowed outside to scoot, these small details were what had defined and encapsulated my existence for the last two years. Besides, Deprived of physicality, we were all just memories, anyway.
I felt like a coward, alienated from my own choices, almost as if a magic mirror had chosen to send me home and I was just stupidly following its orders. And yet, what price would I —and others— have to pay for the choices I made? What if my sensible reasons to leave were just rationalizations for my selfishness? What if I was Case 31, a super-spreader? I told myself to be reasonable. I told myself that I was perfectly fine, that I just had a bit of a sore throat. But then again, what if I was a poison apple? Even though I looked just fine on the outside, how much time did I have before I poisoned myself —or someone I loved— and became suspended halfway between being and not-being?
I didn’t wash my hands enough. I bought groceries. I took the subway. I let a friend drive me to the airport. I hugged another friend goodbye. I drank from a water fountain. I touched my face to scratch an itchy eyebrow. I mulled over my choices, as if to acknowledge them was enough of a Mea Culpa to atone for what damage I could have unwittingly done to others. I breathed out a plea, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned”, and felt just a little better. I did what I could. Perhaps the final judgement would be postponed for just a little longer.
Unable to focus, I looked down from the movie I wasn’t really watching. I checked the time on my wristwatch, which unobtrusively announced that it was 6:37: three hours and twenty-six minutes before I was supposed to land back home. I noticed that my hands were very, very chapped. Somewhat surprised that my hands were still functional and attached to my body, I picked off a flake of skin, dug around my backpack for some hand cream, slathered a liberal dollop on, and rubbed it in. Maybe I shouldn’t touch anything, but I was not about to let the causal observer know that I washed my hands religiously, fanatically, like a little green hobgoblin.
Taking a deep breath to steady myself, I split my body and clothed both halves with the fabric of space-time. Even though I was still on the plane, I re-watched the events of the day to reassure myself that I had not yet made the mistake that would trigger a chain of events that led to my ineluctable doom. I wake up precisely at 8:30. dress, brush my teeth, make a parfait, eat it, and set about dealing with the remanent bits of debris that I haven’t yet packed. I am done by 11:03 AM. I stream a show until a my ride texts me at 11:36 AM. I take the elevator down, hand in my keys to the phantom behind the reception desk. My friend and I drive to Newark and arrive at 12:31 PM (I know, I check my phone), I check in at the counter, four hours and forty-one minutes before my flight. Of course my luggage is exactly five pounds overweight, I have been given forty-eight-hours to arrange my affairs before I was evicted from my dorm. Not that the airline people care or show any kind of sympathy. They don’t care about me or my affairs, either.
There is nothing to do but select a corner of the airport to splay out and repack my debris, allowing it to be exposed to the sight —and other invisible particles— of all the denizens of the airport. I re-pack, check my bag, and then proceed through security. I stay two meters away from everyone, and sanitize my hands afterward. It is 1:09 PM when I am through security (I check again). I wipe down my seat and stay at the gate, two meters away from everyone, until I begin boarding at 4:32 PM (I check, again). I am blameless. I had done everything humanly possible to contain the spread of the virus. I can’t possibly be the container for the poison, right?
Back on the plane, my two selves collided again, almost as if they were happy to be back together. I marvelled at how the pandemic was doing strange things to my psyche. I was not the kind of person who believed in ghosts. I was not the kind of person who had out-of-body experiences. I was not the kind of person who checked the time obsessively and remembered the exact time at which things happened. I was not the kind of person who washed her hands raw. I was certainly not the kind of person who showed up at the airport four hours and forty-one-minutes before her flight. And yet, I had been transfigured into that kind of person.
Unable to help myself, I checked the time (again). It was only 6:39: three hours and twenty-four minutes until I was supposed to land. Looking for a distraction, I took out my phone, logged into the airplane’s WiFi, and began scrolling through the mountains of emails I had been ignoring. I opened one email from the American embassy, time-stamped 18 Mar. 2020, 6:20 PM. I read
Airlines have begun curtailing or ceasing operations in Colombia. If your travel has been disrupted, please contact your airline. All national land, maritime, and riverine borders are now closed to citizens and non-citizens. Citizens and residents may still enter the country via airports as long as airlines continue to operate. The Government of Colombia also requires that all travelers arriving in Colombia must go into self-quarantine for 14 days and must complete a form with contact and arrival information.
I hoped I would be let in. What if I wasn’t? I couldn’t very well get sent back, could I? Becoming a countryless person would be worse than being left in Limbo. However, before I let my thoughts spiral out of control, I decided that my phone was a source of unnecessary anxiety. I turned it off and tossed it into my backpack.
Beside me, a greasy ghost wearing a wrinkled grey suit and an improvised face mask made out of a baby wipe with holes cut into it for the ears put his elbow on my armrest, increasing the volume and decreasing the brightness of the movie I was not watching. Containing my petty peevishness, I politely asked if he could kindly remove his elbow. He did, and I restored order to my movie. Desiring to not think my thoughts, I forced myself to focus on the concerns of the characters in the film. I finished my movie, and watched another, and began another until the plane had landed and the captain turned the seat belt sign off.
Forced to return to my parallel reality, I changed the sim card on my phone. It was 9:55 by the time I had received the text that my phone plan had been reactivated. I texted my mom, telling her that I had landed. I was the last one off the plane.
I mechanically walked myself to immigration. Before I was allowed to get in line to pass through Immigration, under a sign that read Bienvenidos a Bogotá, a phantom clad in head-to-toe protective gear, complete with clear eyeglasses asked me with a woman’s voice where I was coming from. “Nueva York, señorita” I said, my Spanish sounding rusty in my ears. She asked if I had experienced any of the symptoms. A slight sore throat, I said, but none of the others. She took my temperature with a sort of wireless camera shaped like the head of a garden hose sprayer. She said I was normal, and that I would be allowed in the country. She asked if I lived here. I breathed a silent prayer of thank-you, hesitated, and said that I did now. She told me that I was to self-isolate as soon as I arrived home. I was not to leave my home for fourteen days. I was not to have physical contact with my family. I was to wear a face mask as soon as I left the airport.
I stood in line before the passport check, tickled that I would be allowed to go home. Before I was waved through Immigration, I had to fill out another form, with my name and address. I was taken aside by another phantom in protective gear, temperature-checked, and told much of the same thing.
I claimed my luggage and dragged myself, and my overweight luggage, through customs, wondering irrationally what would happen if my parents had decided to not pick me up.
Crossing the threshold of the international arrivals gate, I was struck by how abandoned it was. My home city, too, was abandoned. There were no tearful hugs, flowers, offers for a taxi, or celebrations. The only other person there was young man with a big backpack. I assumed he was a student, like me. He was greeted by two women who I assumed were his mother and sister. The family did not reunite. The mother handed her son a face mask. He glanced at it briefly and put it on. As he passed, we made eye contact. Even though I couldn’t see the phantom’s mouth, I smiled at him, and I like to think that he smiled back. As he exited through the double doors, he waved goodbye. I waved back, in farewell to the person he had once been.
I got my mom’s call at 10:36 PM: forty-one minutes after I had landed. I opened the car door and was greeted with a brief hello. Then, I was handed a surgical face mask. I stared at it, white and almost translucent. I pondered my choice for a second before I put it on. That night, as we drove through my ghostly hometown with a population of ghost people, I realized that I, too, had become a ghost.