Friday, March 13, 2020, I got on a plane from Madrid, Spain to Washington, D.C.
This was somewhat coincidental. A month earlier, I’d spent Valentine’s Day in Florence with a friend from high school, a costume designer who’d just finished a contract on a cruise ship and was treating herself to a short vacation before flying back to New York. I was meant to spend mid-March through mid-April at a residency in upstate Vermont, drive down the coast for my sister’s graduation in May, and fly back to Madrid for a summer of teaching, music festivals, and a hike on the Camino de Santiago before starting orientation here at CSU in late August.
By now you’ve guessed only one of those things happened.
Coming into Italy, I’d had my forehead scanned by masked officials, but thought little of it when I discovered one of my bags hadn’t made the flight; swept it from my mind, set my sights on the Uffizi and Birth of Venus, which I’d be seeing for the first time after first studying Botticelli in high school near a decade earlier.
I’d heard of COVID for months teaching English to Chinese students through an online platform. Sometime around Christmas I’d noticed a spike in my bookings; students were home from school during odd hours, and even some of my younger kids had spontaneously added upper-level words like “mask” and “virus” to their vocabulary. And still, it wasn’t until Italy shutdown its schools in early March, its borders just days later—just a few weeks after I’d first visited the Vatican, watching tourists snap secret selfies with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—that I paid any attention to signs that had been laid at my feet. As my flight approached, a close friend—a son my age from a family I’d stayed with two summers outside of Verona—told me that hospitals in his region hadn’t been so overwhelmed since WWII.
And so when Spain closed its schools for the first time on Monday, March 9, I moved my flight up to the next available day—the 15th. Two days later, Trump opened his mouth, and the ticket prices shot up hundreds. In line at the airport, I overheard a girl say she’d paid nearly 2k. I’d paid a minor fee for changing the date. My heart was determined to dismantle rib from sternum. How close I had been. I felt like I was escaping. I’m ashamed to say it had even been kind of exciting, then.
The girl next to me is double masked.
The first line I wrote in my notebook about COVID. And then I spent the next hour of the flight writing down everything I could think of. Height of the plane. Distance flying. Cost of my ticket. Cost to change my ticket. Cost of other tickets. Ages. Quotes from text conversations and spoken conversations and things I was seeing on TV. Everything leading up to this moment. Things I thought I should remember. Things I thought I might want to write about, when I still thought that things would all somehow be back to normal by August, by the time classes started.
Very little of the last year has been at all what I had planned or wanted. The residency is indefinitely postponed. My sister has not and will not get to walk for graduation. Music festivals, cancelled. In the face of the unknown, of when we might be allowed to see each other again, a relationship lost.
And yet, these losses are not a life. We have lost so many of those lives. Over 2.5 million at this writing. I cannot say I have lost that; I cannot say 2020 was a total loss. Cannot count the books read, the Zoom calls, the virtual readings attended. Cannot say I did not treasure time with my family: game nights, bingeing entire series, talks with my grandmother about life before my memories, life before my own life.
Instead, I can say that in the first months, taking walks around my family’s property in S.W.V.A., I wrote the poem which would be my first print publication; can say I am learning to be alone with myself, uninterrupted. Can say that my workshop-mates have made me cry on numerous occasions with their generosity, their sincerity, their words—those on paper, those from their lips, singing praises, offering advice. And still, some of them I have never so much as seen in person.
Thursday, March 11th, shortly after I’d finished conferencing with 30 some students, I got a call from a local pharmacy asking me if I could make it in that evening—my name was next on a list of alternates for when vaccine-eligible locals couldn’t make it to their appointment. And so, my right arm is throbbing a bit as I write this, a dull ache dwarfed by the promise that, even if “after” doesn’t look exactly like “before,” there is an after in sight.
Is this sentimental? It’s a risk I am willing to take. A year in, I think I can say I need a little sentimentality. I need something to lean into.
How much love can radiate through a screen? Enough, it turns out, to grow. Enough, I am finding, to spend days alone in my home and not feel entirely lonely. To miss something I have never fully had so much I cannot wait until whatever after might be, so long as that after includes people again. These people, supporting me and my writing in ways I could not have anticipated when I applied. An after in this community, here. Here, almost where I am, but not quite. Though far, we’re still connected. And in some ways, even closer.
Michael Todd is a first-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction.