March 24, 2020
To explain the situation, I have to start with the fact that I live at a boarding school north of Chicago. My husband teaches English and is an assistant dean here, and as part of his compensation we get campus housing. This means several things: 1) general financial security, in that many of our bills are paid and we normally could eat cafeteria food three meals a day if we really wanted to; 2) we know all our neighbors; they are all intelligent people who’ve been fingerprinted; 3) our apartment, which has a separate entrance, is also attached by one door to a dorm of forty teenagers.
This is generally a lovely situation. Yes, boarding schools still exist. No, they are not for wayward children. It’s a lot of very smart high school students from around the country and the world, many of whom couldn’t get a great education at home. It’s like going to a small liberal arts college four years early. No, it is not like Hogwarts. No, it’s not like The Facts of Life. No, I personally have absolutely no responsibilities regarding the students, other than the fact that I’m not really supposed to have pot on campus. I see them when they babysit, when I take my kids to the spring musical, and when they frolic outside in good weather. For anyone coming out of graduate school and facing a bleak job market or an unstable adjunct situation, I highly recommend this life instead. To put it bluntly, it’s a great place to be poor.
So, one of my husband’s duties is as Head of Residential Life. This means he was the one in charge, initially, of keeping the dorms open over spring break (normally one of three times in the year the kids have to vacate) because a few weeks back, it didn’t look responsible to send kids home to China, Japan, et cetera. For the past week, he’s been in charge of making sure all the kids who stayed have a way to get home. These kids are minors, their parents don’t always speak English, and it’s been fraught. (In one case, there was a flight that was supposed to arrive in Taipei at 11:59 p.m., with the understanding that at midnight, Taipei would stop allowing transferring passengers. They made it.)
There’s genuine community here among the faculty families. Although we’re close to a major city, the campus is back in the woods with very little else around, and most of us have known each other for years. It snowed on Sunday, and we formed a text chain plan for all the kids to meet in the faculty quad for a socially-distanced snowman competition and snowball fight. It was lovely to watch from the window, and of course in the grand tradition of snowball fights, it ended in tears all around.
My husband and some of his friends are deeply mourning the loss of sports (something I can’t quite summon energy to care about) and decided to hold their own NCAA playoffs using a very complicated algorithm and some dice. (Math and science folks are in higher proportion here than in the general population, and the fantasy leagues get technical.) On a rainy night last week, they needed a place on campus where they could gather indoors, but six feet away from each other. They asked to use the stage of the auditorium, but it was being deep-cleaned, as were most other surfaces outside of faculty homes. So they went to the indoor hockey rink. They stood in the cold for two hours, each with the beers they’d brought for themselves (any kids remaining on campus were curfewed into their rooms) and rolled dice into the middle of the circle, Clorox-wiped them off, rolled again, rolled again.
We’re incredibly fortunate right now. I lost a lot of travel and paid gigs, I lost my German book tour, and I likely won’t make it to Budapest at the end of April for my father’s interment. My kids are missing performances and a visit with extended family. But I’m between books, working on my next one, in a drafting phase, not trying to debut something to a preoccupied world. My husband will teach his classes online, I’ll teach my grad students and adult writers online. Both of our mothers are in good health and sheltering well. I’m enjoying time home with my kids after being on the road pretty nonstop the past two years. We’re learning Spanish, and we have enough to eat. Theoretically, we could always break into the school’s supply of institutional toilet paper.
My last novel, The Great Believers, was about the early years of the ongoing AIDS pandemic. One thing my research for that book taught me was that while viruses are brutally random, they also magnify and take advantage of the preexisting imbalances of any society. A lot of us have been noting parallels to this pandemic, but I haven’t seen anyone oversimplify the comparison. The differences (scientifically, sociologically, historically) are just as important to study. The conservative estimate I’ve seen thrown around recently for Corona deaths is 1.1 million globally. That’s the same number of people who died globally from AIDS last year. While it’s tempting to take that equation and make judgments around it, it’s too early. All I want to do for the present moment is take note. Our job right now is as witnesses.
My asthma makes me high risk, and so my husband is the one making the occasional run for supplies. I don’t know when the next time I’ll leave campus is, although tomorrow we have a rare fifty-five-degree day, and I might take my kids hiking in a ravine that would require a short drive to reach.
I want to tell you one more thing. Two friends married each other tonight, and about ninety of us attended via Zoom. They’ve loved each other for a long time, and moved the wedding up so they could share the better health insurance plan. They were in their home with close family and the friend who performed the marriage, and all the rest of us were spread around the country. I put a scarf and earrings and white gloves on for the occasion, over my workout clothes. One of my favorite things was seeing not just the bride and groom but the faces of everyone else watching. You can’t normally do that at a wedding, just gaze at other people and their reactions. Some of them were dear friends and most were strangers, but I was never tempted to switch to a single screen view of the ceremony.
I’m a genuine extrovert (rare, perhaps, for a writer), and usually to me that means going out, seeing people, throwing parties, going to parties, putting on events, staying out till two. I’m trying to channel that same impulse into my appreciation for the communities I’m part of, even at a distance. I’m trying to focus now on the quieter and more important connections. On all of us facing each other.
Love from quarantine,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Makkai’s contribution will be directed to Vida/SIDA.