Part 1: Leaving America
As the van leaves our house for the last time on our tree-lined DC street, I whisper goodbye to the lingering cherry blossoms, unsteady in the wind. After being bare so long, the oaks and maples are in the blush of their first pale green. Already, I feel a pang of loss that I won’t see the deep emerald dapple of their leaves in summer.
Our parting from the city during Coronavirus has been unnatural and disassociated. There have been no farewell parties, no goodbye picnics with our kids’ friends, no last loving hugs. The primary emotion remains a sort of numbness, shot through every now and again, with a stab of sorrow at the most unexpected moments. My 7-year-old daughter serious and solitary on the trampoline, when only a few weeks ago she was leaping with three friends, all giggling and tumbling over each other. Our last walk with our beloved dog who is unable to get on any flight for who knows how many months. Our friends standing at a distance in our garden with gifts of letters, plastic gloves and hand-sewn face masks. Our eyes reach for each other but our hands cannot. We cannot give body to our loss.
Our drive to Dulles airport, usually blocked with traffic, happens in record time, the roads mostly empty. The airport, too, is eerily deserted apart from a few airport workers. We don’t see a soul as we wander the corridors and take the electric train to our gate. We feel like the last humans left on earth. Over the loudspeaker, messages sternly advise appropriate health care measures. I cannot escape the feeling that I am living in a dystopian movie and not any version of real life I could ever have imagined.
Out of nowhere, passengers seem to congregate, though the plane is far from full. I look out the window after rubbing down the seats with Clorox wipes and vow to myself not to use the toilets. Evening is coming. We will be flying west into San Francisco to catch our flight to Sydney. Going ‘out west’ has always had such an allure for me, but all I feel is emptiness as we chase the last light of day on this uncalled adventure.
An older Australian couple sitting in front of us keep ordering drinks. The husband tends to his wife who is getting progressively more inebriated. She laughs loudly and cries intermittently, sighing, and snorting and then breaks into a prolonged bout of sobbing that lasts almost an hour. She buries her head into her husband’s shoulder and then snogs him in between the tears. It is all a little disconcerting. But it is when she suddenly launches into a spluttering, continuing coughing fit that the energy in the cabin completely changes. You can literally feel the tension take hold as the remaining passengers sit in white knuckled terror and scramble for their masks.
It breaks through the veneer of normality that we were pretending to cling to. This is no ordinary flight. Not for anyone. I imagine the droplets of her coughs suspended in the air in the small airless cabin. There is no defense. I pray she won’t be on the next flight with us to Sydney but I am already resigned, and I steel myself for the next leg of our journey.