Emily St. John Mandel is the author of Station Eleven and, most recently, The Glass Hotel.
In New York City, we knew what was coming. We knew our population density and our reliance on public transit made us vulnerable. We knew our federal government lacked the competence and possibly the will to protect us. And yet, for the most part – and this is hard to account for, in retrospect – we continued on more or less as normal until an absurdly late date. I was still shaking hands with strangers in early March.
On March 11 – or now, Day 1, the first of all of these kinds of days – I was supposed to pack my suitcase for an early flight the next morning, but as the day drifted into evening, I found that I just couldn’t do it. My husband asked me to reconsider the trip and I realized he was right: The world in which I got on airplanes had somehow already slipped away. I cancelled my trip in a late-night text to my lecture agent. Overnight, the President spoke to the country and a professional sports league shut down and celebrities, for all their gilded lives, were diagnosed with the virus. The next day, I pulled our four-year-old daughter out of preschool. On her last day at school, seven kids and three teachers were sent home with fevers.
We withdrew from the world. I cancelled a 25-city book tour in increments, one month and one country at a time. There was no more child care, so my husband and I traded off all day and never had quite enough time for our work – but how lucky we were, to still have jobs. I followed the NYC numbers with diligence, but we all knew the numbers were artificially low. No one I knew who was sick had been tested.
I expended a great deal of energy in maintaining a façade of cheerfulness for my daughter – let’s call her C – because the western leg of the book tour had included a weekend off to see my family in British Columbia, and when would I see them again? The border was closed. Groceries arrived once a week and we spent a long time washing everything with soap before we put it away. My fifth novel was published and for a long time – weeks – I did Zoom events in the evenings. C liked to come into my office and say hi to the people on my screen.
“Do you feel that you predicted our present moment?” interviewers would ask, because my previous novel was about a fictional flu pandemic, and I’d tell them that I’d predicted nothing. Something that became clear to me in my research for that book, years ago, is that there will always be another pandemic. They’re as inevitable as hurricanes and earthquakes.
What I’ll remember of the first 100 days is that the fear and sadness were considerable, and yet every day contained moments of beauty and joy. Now that C’s real friends were absent, she suddenly had dozens of imaginary ones, and an imaginary kingdom, too. We spent hours playing a game we invented, called “Enchanted Forest.” C was the queen of the forest; her friends were fairies, talking foxes, talking owls, a pink unicorn. Together, they saved the forest from peril every day. I spent hours working in the garden, trying to make it as magical as possible – for her and for us – even as sirens wailed.
We flattened the curve in New York State, but sometimes the flat top of a curve is a devastatingly high plateau. There was a period in April when more than 600 people were dying every day. Our home was so tranquil, but outside was death. At any given point in the day, if you stopped and listened, you would hear an ambulance. Try not to think of the people gasping for breath in the back; try not to think of the refrigerated trailers parked outside of the hospitals. If I woke early enough, I’d sometimes see the ambulances pass by with no sirens, just red-and-blue lights flashing by in the dark.
At 7 p.m. every night, we went out on the balcony to clap for the health care workers, and every night in March and April it moved me to tears. What I’ll remember forever is that from roughly 7 p.m. to 7:02 p.m. every night, New York City stepped outside or leaned out of windows and applauded, banged spoons on iron railings and shouted and cheered. I stared at the distant spires of Manhattan and wondered how many last breaths were being drawn at that moment. We were applauding the health care workers, but as the weeks passed, it also felt like a kind of collective cry: We’re still here, we’re still here, we’re still here.
By May, the numbers were dropping in the city. Without the constant sirens, it was easier to work, so I began a new novel. We went out more often, with face masks on. I started speaking with other parents about school plans for the fall.
But elsewhere in the country, strangely large cohorts of the population saw wearing masks as a political statement, or as a sign of weakness, or both. There were states that opened early, and states that never entirely shut down. On Day 75, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and day upon night of protests began – thousands of protesters and hundreds of police officers crowded together. Day 75 was also the Memorial Day holiday, and crowds gathered for pleasure in the hundreds or thousands. They’d decided that the pandemic was over, or perhaps decided that it was never a threat at all. In New York City, we stared at the photos of the Memorial Day crowds in confusion and horror.
A virus doesn’t care whether a crowd gathers for fun or by necessity, to drink beer in a pool or to take to the streets to change a country. It seemed to me that a crowd in a pandemic had only one plausible outcome, so I wrote “covid spike” on my calendar for two weeks out from Day 75, as a reminder to myself to be extra cautious.
But what happened next might be thought of as a tale of two crowds. The spike I’d anticipated in New York City never came. But in the states where massive holiday crowds had gathered – Texas, Florida, Arizona and elsewhere – the curve was sickening, that vertiginous exponential rise that I remembered from the spring. The difference? Here, the crowd wore masks.
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