My friend shaved his head. Two friends broke up. One friend lost his grandmother. Another picked up the clarinet. A friend’s cousin broke off her engagement. And we all haven’t left our houses.
I live with eight other people in an apartment meant for seven. There are nine of us. We became eight the day Colette left, when it all started happening.
We live in a duplex, a shingled two-story house that wants to be green. Six women live above us, in a unit meant for six. We call them the Carolines because one of them is named Caroline and she’s the only one we’ve met. We encounter her in the back lot when she parks her baby blue Volvo, or when she leaves a load of laundry in the dryer.
We’ve never met the other Carolines, but we hear them. We hear their cement boots clamber up the steps when they leave for the day and again when they come home. We hear them have sex with the men they complain about over coffee on their porch every Sunday morning. We hear glass shattering in the middle of the night and we see the remnants of their weekend in the driveway.
But now there’s only one Caroline upstairs. We knew she was the last one left because the lot we share was filled with cars until it wasn’t. A text confirmed it. It came Friday night around 11 PM. She asked if we could be a bit quieter. We turn the music down one stop and tell Caroline that we’re sorry, that we were going to go to Miami for spring break, but then everything happened, and that she’s more than welcome to come down and join us for a round of drinks, the kind that remind us of a place we’ve never been to.
Caroline tells us that she totally understands, that she had plans to go somewhere too, but then everything happened, and the other Carolines left, and now it’s just her, and it’s been pretty lonely.
We turn the music down one more stop and listen for cement boots, for someone bounding down the steps to wash tequila down with Dole by the can. But there’s nothing. We tell her to come over for dinner on Saturday. She tells us that she would love to.
I don’t know why I put on a dress. I don’t know why I want to look good for her, for this girl whose precarious lovers make my walls shake every now and again. But my walls have been still lately, and having Caroline’s cement boots grace our entryway feels like an occasion. We haven’t had many occasions. We haven’t had anybody over in a while. In the first few days when everything started happening, friends would come over to say goodbye and our bodies would stutter with everything we’d seen and heard in the last 48 hours colliding with our instinct to embrace. We either listened to that instinct or we didn’t.
Coronavirus can survive on the ground for up to 72 hours but she doesn’t take her shoes off when she comes in. Caroline introduces herself as Ana. She sets a half empty handle of vodka on our countertop and tells us that she’s vegan. Tonight we’re having matzo ball soup and potato latkes with sour cream and green onion and banana pudding for dessert.
Caroline sits next me. She lifts the bowl to her mouth, sipping chicken broth and biting down on shreds of fried potato. She tells us she’s only been vegan for a few months and that it’s for environmental reasons. She says that if she wants to eat chicken, she’s going to eat chicken.
“So, why are you staying?” I ask her.
Caroline tells us that she’s from here, that her family lives in Oakland, just down the way. She says that she feels a lot better isolating here than going back home. Before everything happened we were taking the bus, sitting in 300-person lecture halls, and asking those close and those not-so-close to us for sips of whatever they were drinking. She thought it was best to stay put, to keep whatever her asymptomatic, 19-year-old body may or may not have, away from her loved ones.
She thanks us for dinner and excuses herself without having any banana pudding. When my hands say goodbye they’re clasped and confused. My hands are still learning how to do this, how to say goodbye in a pandemic. There’s white stuff on the back of my left hand and it takes me a second to realize what it is. Soap. Soap that didn’t get washed away, because I’m still learning how to do this. I’ve watched countless hand washing tutorials that prove that I’ve never washed my hands correctly, that my hands have never really been clean. The backs of my hands will be the reason why me and the seven other people that I live with will get sick. The backs of my hands will be the reason why people I don’t know might not survive this.
Before all this happened, the windows of the neighboring houses always seemed to be empty. Now there’s always somebody in them. The whole point of the shelter-in-place order is to reduce the amount of infections by decreasing the amount of variables running around. You and I and all the Carolines are variables. So is Ben, who just shaved his head. And Mari and Kilmer, who just broke up. And Isaac, who buried his grandmother over FaceTime. And Athena, who started playing the clarinet again. And Natalia’s cousin, who broke off her engagement. None of us have left our houses.
— Regina Madanguit, ’20