Notes from Quarantine

Graphic by Robert Samec
Graphic by Robert Samec

One night in mid-October I was running a fever––somewhere between 100.5 and 101 ℉ according to the infrared thermometer my parents had bought in the early weeks of the pandemic. I felt generally lousy––chills, headache, malaise––and began quarantining in my bedroom as a precaution. Early the next morning I drove to the nearest urgent care clinic, wearing a KN95 mask and a cloth one over it, to get a COVID-19 rapid test. Thirty people were ahead of me in the queue. I waited several hours in the parking lot for the swab, then several more for the result. I had been to the clinic before and knew the routine, along with the sense that the test contained some moral quality––that to fail it was not only to fail clinically, but cosmically.

The test came back inconclusive—a one-in-a-hundred quirk according to the doctor—and had to be redone, this time mercifully expedited. She took me into the exam room, swabbed again, and told me to come back in fifteen minutes. Next, I found myself being ushered into a curtained-off back room, the doctor’s stare fixed on the report bearing the news that I had tested positive. I have never seen a doctor look so afraid. “You’re young,” she reassured me. “Remember, for most people your age, in the worst case this is like a bad cold.” Her eyes said something else.

They were familiar eyes, with a look I had hoped never to see again. They took me back to April, when my mother received a call from my grandparents’ home health aide. My grandfather had fallen, an early sign of COVID infection in the elderly. This was when the words “epicenter” and “triage” had just come into common parlance in Brooklyn, where my grandparents lived. Paramedics were called to their apartment, and they helped my grandfather off the floor. They told him he had to be taken to the hospital, but he refused to go, not wanting to leave my grandmother and forsake his last goodbye.

My mother was convinced she had to drive from our home in Connecticut to Brooklyn and take my grandfather to the hospital herself. We started improvising ad hoc face-shields: plastic pencil cases stapled to the brims of baseball caps, a Guy Fawkes mask over a bandana over two surgical masks, and other imitations of armor. Again my grandfather refused and told my mother to stay home. She knew he would not budge. A month later, my grandfather, though severely debilitated by the virus, had come through it. My grandmother had been largely asymptomatic.

Once New York had eased some of its restrictions on travel, my brother and I went with my mother to visit our grandparents. The city was lonely and everywhere showed signs of plague. Parked a block away from my grandparents’ apartment was a mobile freezer morgue––a temperature-controlled semi-trailer decoupled from an 18-wheeler, filled with the dead or waiting for them. Masks and gloves littered the sidewalks. The thoroughfare was empty. As we got out of the car, suited up in our face-shields and KN95s, we looked ready to explore Chernobyl. Upstairs in my grandparents’ apartment, we learned that three neighbors on their floor of only six units had died since March, an aberration suggesting the virus’s hand. 

My grandmother would be the fourth. I didn’t understand that day that she was dying, but I felt a well of grief and rage I couldn’t explain. It was a tearing feeling, facing the harsh unknowable and what it can take. I saw all this again in five minutes in the back room of that urgent care clinic, in the eyes of that doctor who feared for her life and for mine. 


When you test positive for the virus, you become a statistic. I found that idea unnerving. Even more unnerving was the multiplicity of statistical categories you could be sorted into after the moment of diagnosis: the asymptomatics, the symptomatics, the long-haulers, the dead. The regime of quarantine and contact tracing is meant to monitor those statistics and keep them static or small. Now, I was one of its subjects. Fortunately, my parents both tested negative and never entered this strange kingdom.

The consensus in the scientific literature seems to be that fevers cause “bizarreness” in dreams, that when body temperature rises, dreaming in REM sleep becomes vivid and weird. My first night of quarantine, this chemistry was in full effect. I dreamed I was in the bedroom of my family’s old apartment, pulling back Venetian blinds and staring out of the window onto a massive sea. Far into the horizon, I made out nearly 20 police cars cutting through the water, sirens screaming. The cars parked outside my bedroom window and dozens of plain clothes officers, dressed in Hawaiian shirts—each one looking like Twin Peaks’ The Man from Another Place—jumped out, crashed through the glass, and began ransacking the apartment with no decipherable aim. I ran to my mother and asked her, “Are they the police?” She answered, “No. They own the police,” and the dream ended.  Over the next two weeks, staring out of my bedroom window became something of a habit, less an unconscious reenactment of the dream, and more immediately the only way I could think of to get any Vitamin D. Slowly this became my own Rear Window, a balm for the monotony, a bit of pageantry to be found in the rote. Fall came, and people in the street and on terraces began bundling up. The air felt cold against the windowpane, squirrels were fatter, time moved. Most days I read or played the guitar––my mother’s vintage Guild dreadnought that was now mostly mine. Quarantine was making me a more technical guitarist. But more than that, it taught me what music can occasion in the self, that, as Cervantes put it, “He who sings frightens away his ills.” This old guitar was good medicine.

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