We stayed at the old Hotel Colon that overlooked the Barcelona Cathedral, two hundred paces across the square, as we waited out the contagion. We had come for an international medicine meeting, or at least we had told that story—he to his wife, me to my sons and their reluctant father, my ex. We’d be in Spain for just a week. We slipped in just before the virus, but then it came quickly and we waited to leave, quarantined in the hotel. The cathedral was closed, the shops shuttered. The square was curfewed after sunset.
Quarantine, from the Italian, “quarantina”—a forty-day period of isolation marking time for latent cases of infection to exhaust their virulence. Forty days.
Our corner room was near the top of the hotel. It had a small Juliet balcony where we would stand, huddled together naked under the same blanket, to watch the stars over the now-dark city. We’d arise at madrugada—dawn—when the square held only stray cats, lean in their desire, and the old priest walking slowly to an empty cathedral.
I watched my lover—standing at our perch, the blanket robed his shoulders as he leaned his hands on the wrought iron balustrade. The air was moist, cool. He pulled the blanket around him, leaned out further. His face half turned. His lips moved.
“Madrugada. The light that isn’t yet,” he said, and returned to our bed.
I curled under his arm, under the blanket. He pulled me to him.
“You are my—Madrugada.”
I held out a cup of coffee.
“The hotel is running out of food,” I said. “I overheard the kitchen staff.”
“Are you sure?”
“I know the difference between hay comida and no hay comida.”
“As long as they have coffee.” He smiled.
Except in our room, we wore masks—indoors and on the street. We ate outside on the patio beneath the locust tree at the table that had become “ours.”
“Is there any truth,” he asked in Spanish of the maître d’hotel who showed us to our table, “that the restaurant is running out of food?”
“Yes, but no. We have less of many things, like butter, like milk. We have plenty of other things, like flour, like soup. So no, we are not running out. Today we have grapes.”
We were masked until our food came. Coffee—hot, strong, black—bread, cheese, and round, tart grapes.
We recognized the same twenty people stranded in the hotel. We nodded, we smiled. We kept to ourselves.
We’d known one another for thirty years. He didn’t want to calculate my age. People would look at us, holding hands, our public kisses deep as we sat alone in the twilight. It was hardly worth hiding as the world was being overtaken by this virus that no one yet understood.
Our rooms were our own territory. We changed our own sheets, cleaned our own toilets, all to avoid contact. We couldn’t leave the city. There were no cars to let, no buses, no taxis, no flights out.
We made love. We wrote. We read and re-read each other’s stories and day-old newspapers. We walked around the square and sometimes down empty, hidden streets. We made love. The quarantine was tolerable, in the absence of milk.
My sons and I texted.
“Are you eating?”
“Yes, we’re eating.”
“More than ice cream and chips?”
A yellow smiley face. A thumbs-up.
“Is your father taking care of you?”
My sons—in high school and nearly grown. Back home, their grudging father kept a vague eye on their activities as I waited out the contagion.
In the afternoon the French doors were shaded with green painted shutters covered with ivy. Dappled sunlight fell on us, on the bed fragrant with our scents. This room, this place, this bed, our sex.
Occasionally his wife would call. He would stand on the balcony and talk, his reassuring lies rolled like soft thunder through the French doors.
“You’re angry,” he said, coming back in. He stripped out of his jeans and lay down on the bed.
“I’m not angry,” I said. “But this will never change.”
I moved to the other side of the bed to get up. He held my leg.
“I’ve been with her too long. She’s, we’re—old.”
“I was young when I met you.” I laughed.
“You still are.”
I laid a hand on his bare chest.
Viral coils tied a noose around the city. There were no hospital beds for the sick. The dead were waiting in trucks.
For the healthy few at the hotel, the lack was progressive. One day, no soap. The next, no shampoo. Then the flour. No bread. At least there was coffee. And grapes.
At the embassy we stood in line. Our turn was futile. There was no pressure from the United States to return their citizens. The president’s bluster could not wish this virus away. The nearing readiness of a vaccine whispered to us like the promise of milk. BBC news projected December. Could we live seven months more without milk?
We wandered the Via Laietana looking for open shops. Down the Carrer dels Mercaders, Merchants Street, we found a small store that sold local produce out of a back window. Given the mandatory closings this was likely illegal, but we willingly paid too much for a bag of oranges, a day-old loaf of bread, lemon soap, olive oil, and a wedge of Manchego. As we paid, I saw an old mercury thermometer that hung in a dusty package next to the toothbrushes.
“Most people, they don’t know what this is,” the shopkeeper told us. He was sturdy; his face was flushed. He wore a mask and dirty latex gloves. He coughed.
A few days later, we heard the tienda had gotten twelve bottles of milk from a local farm. He headed back for milk. I watched him from the balcony. Waving as he smiled up at me, his jaunty walk leading the sidewalk by the empty street.
We’d just made love. Each time was like the first, thirty years ago. Each time—we were swimming under warm water but breathing—and the sunlight, the dappling shadows surrounded us in confused patterns.
I thought of this and him, his walk, his smile.
It was then I realized he’d forgotten his mask.
Two days later he awoke, sweating and hot. I fed him two antipyretics and cold water. He slept fitfully, then awoke with chills. I had steroids and antibiotics, an inhaler, a stethoscope, and an oxygen monitor. Just in case. Something about being a doctor. Something about this virus. Something about love.
I stood alone on the balcony watching madrugada. Watching the stray cats.
Where was the priest?
Who would say mass?
A thousand prayers swirled in this city already lost.
He moaned. I held his hand.
“No,” he said, pulling it away.
“Yes,” I said, taking it again. “What hurts?”
“Everything,” he coughed. “My back, my legs. I think I have to pee…”
“Under your tongue, first,” I said, putting the thermometer in his mouth. Three minutes later it read 103.
I helped him stand and walk a few wobbling steps to the toilet.
“I got it.”
“No, baby,” I said. “If you fall you’ll have to stay where you lay. Sit. Pee.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“You need water and salt,” I said. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
He pulled at the blanket.
“No covers,” I said. I placed a cold, wet cloth on his head and chest.
I called the kitchen. I asked that they leave a tray with a pot of hot water, honey, lemon, salt, and some food. Anything. A short time later the waiter delivered the tray, apologizing through the door for the absence of tea bags and the meager meal. I mixed the salt, the honey, the lemon with the warm water, and poured it over ice.
I made him drink.
“That’s a lot of salt.” He almost smiled, but coughed. “Tastes awful.”
“Volume expansion,” I said.
He was pale. His eyes were hollow. I put my head to his chest, listening to his heart beat.
“Well?” he said.
“Fast. But you have a fever and you’re dehydrated.”
He was breathing fast from the exertion of sitting up in bed, drinking, talking.
I took the stethoscope from my bag. I listened to his lungs. Coarse crackles, like paper rumpling, took the place of the gentle “swoosh” of breath.
He watched my face.
I dug the sat monitor out of my bag and clipped it to his finger. We waited, staring at the blinking blue light that finally settled on ninety-four. I wrote this down on a hotel pad, with the day, the time.
“You’ll live,” I said.
“For now.” He smiled. “I—don’t want—to go to a hospital.”
“Use—everything you brought,” he said.
I fed him doses of antipyretics and steroids as he drank salty honey water, and slowly ate cut oranges. We watched the news on BBC and some Spanish program only he could understand. We slept.
I called to the kitchen for food. Half an hour later it appeared on the floor outside the door. Vegetable soup, biscuits, cheese, and grapes. I fed him the soup. We shared bottles of orange Fanta.
His mouth was less dry. His heart rate was slower. Every two hours—temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate. Simple numbers. The first page on the hotel notepad filled. I started the next. And the next.
Nights passed. Cough, fever. Saltwater brew. Vegetable soup.
After four hotel pad pages, the fever was lower. His urine was not as dark. His eyes weren’t as hollow.
Standing at the balcony I watched the growing daylight. Only cats walked the square.
“What is it?” he coughed out from the bed.
“You may make it,” I said. “As long as your fever goes down and your lungs hold.”
“They’re one of my best organs,” he coughed.
In the night he awoke, calling my name.
“I have to throw up,” he said.
I pushed the trash can under him. All that came up was water and the little bit of soup. The sheets suffered. We hobbled, cobbled together, to the bathroom, where he sat on a towel on the floor, next to the toilet. I held his head. Unremitting vomiting.
We slept on the bathroom floor, on towels, a pillow.
A night light. Ice in a bucket. I gave him sips of salty broth and kept him from drowning.
I dreamed I was drowning, different from our water dreams. My head laid back on the tile wall, his head on the pillow beside me. Cool-water washcloths on his head, his chest, turned hot too fast. I didn’t want to measure his temperature.
He talked as he slept. He talked. His eyes open but not seeing.
He awoke. He vomited.
He slept in his delirium.
Each time sleep replaced my awake, I drowned. The oppressive weight of the water against my chest. I slipped deeper. I couldn’t breathe. I’d been like this before, not breathing under the weight. I struggled to follow the light that came from—up.
Sunlight, through the bathroom door.
I awoke. I had slipped down to the floor, his head on my chest as he slept. His fever had broken; his forehead was cool. We were both wet with his sweat.
He opened his eyes.
“My fever is gone,” he said.
I nodded, my hand on his cool skin.
“Was I awful?”
“You called me by her name,” I said.
“I was delirious.”
“I don’t love her that way.”
“And yet you called for her.”
“Did I know you, at all?”
“Yes. In your sightless seeing—you knew me.”
I held his hand to my cheek and kissed it.
“Now sleep.” He put his head on my chest. “Word came. We have a plane.”
“A week. You must be well enough. We must be. We have to be tested at the airport before boarding.”
“How long have I been—”
“Days. Days and days. A week.”
“Why aren’t you sick?”
“My boys. We were all sick—a few weeks before I left. That’s my best guess.”
“Acquired immunity because you’re a mother.”
“Yes. And luck.”
“Is quarantina over?”
Forty. Forty days in the desert spent the Christ. Forty weeks’ gestation grows the fetus into a baby. Forty days passing quarantine in a hotel in Barça.
We flew back sitting next to each other. We held hands, my arm linked through his, his head on my shoulder. Descending into JFK and the half-turn over the western edge of Brooklyn—
“She’ll be there,” he said.
He looked at me, above his mask. There were tears.
I couldn’t see through my own.
Our faces touched, the last intimate contact.
“I love you,” I said.
“Shhhh, Madrugada,” he answered.
In the airport, at baggage claim, my sons, ever casual, embraced me tighter than I expected. The ex-husband looked relieved. Seven weeks without alimony. Seven weeks as a parent.
Across the carousel I saw him embraced by a dark-haired, slender woman. I saw only her back. His arm around her, he looked at me over her shoulder. He didn’t stop looking at me—
My sons—were speaking. I—
I pointed to my bags, unwinding slowly down the main.
I took a breath and looked again.
He was gone.
I never saw him again.
image by Harry Rajchgot