Each visit, I look forward to the banter, the snark and most of all sitting shoulder to shoulder during a cozy brunch at the Ruby Slipper on Canal Street. This is Black joy. A love I share with my spry, septuagenarian friend. However, this time around, much of it is a no-go. She nixes all that fuzzy love shit on sight.
“Stella, no hug?” I ask open armed.
Lovingly she warns: “You stay your Black ass at that distance. Your hug is in the air.”
My eyes scan her back office. Shelves that stand as tall as the ceiling are stockpiled with paper towels, toilet paper, Lysol, hand sanitizer and cases of bottled water.
“Are you serious?” I joke.
“I survived Katrina fifteen years ago, so what do you think?” she snaps.
I live for her snark. I look around. I think about it. I look around again. It clicks. I get it. Survivors consider catastrophes on a whole ‘nother level than people who know nothing about catastrophic events. Whispers about a novel coronavirus which began at the top of the year have become hollers by mid-March. The virus poses a fatal threat and is highly contagious. Many people were falling sick and dying. Many others were transitioning to shut-in lifestyles almost ahead of the curve. I digest the seriousness after this conversation with Stella, the owner of Stella Jones Gallery in the heart of New Orleans, where I visited the weekend before shit hit the fan.
I am practically quarantined from the outside, yet growing nearer to myself and living each day on a rhythmic three-repeat.
I blink. I yawn. I eat.
I blink. I yawn. I eat.
I blink. I yawn. I eat.
I half-ass my way through the remaining coursework the University of Mississippi has transitioned online. The same goes for the three sections of British literature I teach to undergraduate students. They, too, are performing half-assed. This Great Pause has given everyone a legitimate reason to slack, to catch our breaths, to breathe or so I think. Quite frankly, I am feeling this new-new way—perhaps, too much. I’m embarrassed by this sentiment. I am guilty of respite, security, house-niggering, privilege and selfishness. I have the audacity to experiment with cute recipes that explore Black indigenous food—pig feet, chitterlings, gumbo—while my loved ones suffer during these ominous times. I want to not hear their challenges, their grief. The fucking nerve of me. How white of me. I grapple with being ain’t shit.
A dear friend is spiraling. She don’t do well with uncertainty. I am on a high at home working remotely. I’m aiight; I think. I read and write headlines for a living. Headlines are her trigger: Coronavirus preys on what terrifies us: dying alone
“I can’t imagine the fear I’d have if I had to die by myself,” she says after an overconsumption of trending news.
I recognize her angst. I’ve known her so long that I feel it. I throw in my two cents because I’ve been there with her before. A response is necessary.
“Chile, being surrounded by your people at the time of transition ain’t some shit that anyone should be denied. Nope, not even in a pandemic.”
I remember my dying uncle. He was unwilling to live in a nursing home. He died by choice with my hand in his, my weeping aunt wrapped around him and Luther Vandross’s voice, soul-singing in the background. He died a good death. My friend mumbles something about her moms. She needed to be there … came off the ventilator … took her last breath. I listen to what she doesn’t say because I hear her without hearing. She tells me without telling. She don’t do too well with death. Still, we talk at length about shortages and the overwhelming amount of bodies being dropped down in mass graves up in New York City’s Potter’s Field. We break into conversation about underwhelming funerals that either cap off at ten people who mourn and memorialize over a closed casket and the funerals that can’t go down at all. The homie gets more angry the more we talk about what COVID caused. She fixates mostly on not knowing what she will not know till what she does not know occurs. I tell her to “clean up, keep house, stay busy.” It’s all I’ve got aside from sharing the joys, relief, retreat, optimism and positivity. I swallow those words. They do not fit the moment. We go on to conspire theories and call out predictions.
“That shit been floating around way before March,” I say. “Remember, I was fucked up over the holiday?”
The line is quiet.
“I think I got that shit when I traveled to the Cape.”
“Bitch, my whole household was sickly with respiratory issues by the time you returned, and remember, I had pneumonia,” she says.
I do—then I actually do it. I backtrack to when she had a mysterious bout of pneumonia. It was late October 2019. We spoke briefly over the phone while she was hospitalized. She wheezed and struggled to breathe between sentences till it made no sense to form another. The line went quiet. We deaded that call.
“This shit gon’ fuck up the election. I bet you,” she says.
“Chile, it already started.”
I read a breaking news headline even though I know I shouldn’t: “Louisiana postpones Democratic primary over coronavirus, the first state to do so.“
My very own headlines haunt me and mine(s).
My Cousin, An Essential Worker, Risks Life Driving New York City Workers To And From Essential Duties.
- He has chronic asthma and other underlying issues. He texted: “Shit, if I get it. I don’t think I will make it.” I swallow deep breaths. The air around me is my own.
Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent: Bills Still Gotta Get Paid In A Pandemic.
- My son has asthma, too. He lives communally with his on again-off again girlfriend, his homie and his girlfriend, and their two kids. I tell him to stay in, self quarantine. He tells me he must find a job—like yesterday. I hit send on an email. Attached to it is a six-month old invoice I forgot to submit. It is one of many oversights because my bills are paid. I am not pressed.
#AllMoneyMatters As COVID Claims Careers, Coins And Security.
- Another close friend may be forced to work her job that deals directly with the public or forced into unemployment. She weighs the odds of possibly contracting a lethal virus against survival. She toys with the idea of early retirement. She rethinks the trajectory of her life and her livelihood. Unlike others, I am careful to not ask her shit about her job. She don’t wanna talk about it. So we don’t. Unless she wants to. She wants to but not really. I definitely do not speak about my work or financial security.
By mid-April, at least 45,000 Americans succumb to COVID-19. The overarching number doesn’t reflect that Black folks have died the most, or that African Americans are being wiped out at a rate that is 2.3 times more than white folks, and at exponentially higher rates than other races and ethnicities.
Big Mama Blamed For Poverty And Poor Health, Was It The Sugar In The Grits Or The Salt?
- The disparity ain’t much different from what niggas know to be true in all other facets of Black life, but this slight hits different. It strikes home much harder, more collectively, swiftly, visibly. While many have grown up in poorer communities with family members who suffered diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes and cancers, we are assuaged with watching them decline and die in pieces—bit by bit, limb by limb—in slow motion, all the while under the auspices of shitty health care and neglect. And now this: Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody who got COVID or died from COVID quite expeditiously. Coronavirus struck niggas like the cat-o-nine tails, splitting our Black backs, teasing out pain. It, too, lynched us then blamed us for our deaths.
People don’t take kindly to being told how not to die. People are out there dying, and still people are dying to get out. People are truly bugging. Most don’t even like gestures. Not a singular act or display. Not masks. Not gloves. Not Large red Xes duct-taped on store floors, hyper-white outlines, warnings to the public to step the fuck back—for at least six feet—while standing in line to checkout items.
I needed soap, smokes, a box of Cheez-it and a loaf of bread. In this moment, I am people. I think. But maybe not really. I arm myself accordingly to brave the outside. Gloves, mask, sanitizer and headwear. I adhere to at least 12 feet of social distance, even in this lonely store that serves the surrounding food desert—and its people who hang state flags that bear the symbol that underscores the sign of the times. I am shrouded in three-fourths of cloth. Only my eyes and gloved hands are exposed. They don’t like that. Not none of it.
- Two salty alabaster men walk up closely and stand behind me, unmasked and poorly-aged by Confederate pride, Marlboros and Budweiser Light. I speak upward and point downward as one of these men advance toward my field of safe space.
“Yo. You gotta stand back,” I raise my palm to ward off this white invasion. This type of entitlement is pervasive. It upsets me and my skinfolk.
The two men are bigly annoyed by my audacity, my presence, that I am suited and booted like a Brooklyn Muslima, taking up space and interrupting their reckless flow in a backwood, Mississippi Dollar General.
“This is what socialism looks like,” one said to the ashy other who responds, “When the good Lord calls, he calls.”
I laughed loudly in what I hope sounds like Wuhan, Chickasaw and Black ancestor-speak. I was hoping mostly to offend, yet not forgetting that such a free action, such a rebel attitude is the reason many of them ancestors are dead. It is not lost on me that rebel white folks remain the reason for such a sickly America. Their boots till stolen land. Their red pride taints the soil. I purchase my shit and get out. I return home where it is presumably safe. I think. I plop myself onto the couch and wrack my brain. I push to imagine healthy spaces for Black people.
I push harder to envision a place for Black women. Where might the doulas and Sulas of life exist and resist without the hint of threat looming above their bodies. I come up short, but the couch is long. It hugs the length and the width of me, my full body and all. Arms, legs, belly, brain. I’m aiight, I think. Less guilty, perhaps. I like it here. Self-isolation is giving me life—my peoples, not so much. It is everything I need it to be in the moments I need it to be. I need it to last forever.