March 16. On the flight to Hartford, a single cough quiets the cabin. My row mate jokes about stealing toilet paper from the lavatory.
Though I haven’t seen my daughter in months, we greet with an elbow bump at the airport. We’ll drive to Amherst, where I’m not to get within 10 feet of her boyfriend’s immune system. They’re sharing a four-day drive to his home in Albuquerque, a consolation for canceled spring break plans.
At the motel lot, I wave to her boyfriend through the Subaru window. When they pull out, I call a number taped to the reception door and am told my room key is in a mailbox. I’m the only guest.
March 17. Light traffic down the Eastern Seaboard. Signs flash 211 for COVID-19 information. Stay inside. Be safe.
At a heavily-discounted B&B in Charlottesville, I get an upgrade and wine. On the UVA grounds, groups of students in grad gear take pictures at the Rotunda, knowing they won’t be back.
It’s St. Patrick’s Day. On the downtown mall, a duo plays one Irish folk song and calls it quits. The Court Square Tavern is empty but claims to have been thoroughly bleached. I order the corned beef and cabbage because it’s the special and I feel sorry for the owner.
I talk to my wife back in Tampa. Spring break has been extended again. My son is awaiting college decisions. Will colleges be open in the fall? What hasn’t been canceled is now in doubt.
March 18. When I check out, Candace shows me her reservation book, all cross-outs and erasures. Am I sure I can’t stay another day? I’m so sorry. I’ll come back. Stay well.
It’s the new goodbye. Whatever happens — if you lose your job, your social life, your savings — just stay well. We can get through the rest.
I drive to Charleston, walk the lulled streets. The City Market is empty, its green tables cleared under stilled fans. A stiff wind tumbles a cup through an intersection.
Poogan’s Smokehouse says I can have a beer if I open it outside. I’m at a sidewalk table opposite a newspaper dispenser. When walkers squeeze close, I’m aware of their breath, the direction of the wind.
I return to my hotel before dark, thinking of Charlton Heston in Omega Man, beating out the mutants. Then it hits me: the mutant is the one dragging a thousand miles of exposure in his wake like the tail of a COVID comet.
Before I leave, I’ll wipe down everything I’ve touched.
March 19. I’m home by early afternoon. We’re out of toilet paper. My son is self-quarantining with video games. We feel well, but how can we know? We’ll wait. And wait again when my daughter flies home.
Just when we’ve moved six feet farther apart, we need each other more than ever. How fast it all happened. And now we wait. For hope. Reassurance. A trace of the normal.
We part with a plea: stay well.
John Henry Fleming is a writer in Tampa.