We called him Ísjaki. Few knew his real name. I certainly didn’t when I was charged with being his caretaker during his first visit to New York. Ísjaki meant “iceberg” in Iceland, where this man came from.
I was in Egypt nine months before the towers fell.
The people spoke to me in Arabic Roh Rohi
but I spoke back in English so they called me “American”
/I never called myself American.
America never called me American – not without a hyphen.
Saturday night I’m at the kitchen window listening to my neighbors fight. Theirs is the only light on, pungent and pouring out onto the fire escape, illuminating a coffee can. I’ve counted five cigarette butts so far.
“I can’t keep doing this, bro,” the girl shouts. Glass shatters thick against a wall in their apartment. “I can’t keep doing and doing this.”
The kettle screeches and out goes the mug in my hand and the spoiled red wine all over the windowsill and all over me. Who knows why I’ve set water to boil. A jilted habit of steeping tea to sleep when I had patience with myself. A phantom limb.
There’s a sprint of shouts, one voice trampling another, and then a long, feral cry. My cat when I was a kid yowled like that when she pawed at a mouse trap. We freed her and she crawled into my mother’s dresser where she stayed for weeks and weeks, burrowing into her fear. The world became a mouse trap.
One night, out walking, unable to sleep, and more fatigued than usual by his endlessly unfolding apprenticeship, the eighteen-hour days, the bugs that puncture his skin every night, the lack of money for real milk or for visiting his favorite sister, Andrew saw a man in the street who was raising a gun and pointing it at what?
A young mastiff, thin and weary-looking, staggering for a place to sleep.
For the past few days, I’ve vacillated between panic, helplessness, and feeling like a prophetic, burning witch. I spent the first two months of this year watching the pandemic take hold of China—from the arrest of Dr. Li WenLiang for spreading “false rumors,” to Wuhan and the whole country going into lockdown, to my friends mailing masks back home to their families in China—sitting in my NYC apartment as the virus swept across Korea, Iran, Italy, making its way across the globe towards me.
By the time you read this, more of my neighbors will be dead.
And yet, on this sunny spring day that belies the grim headlines, I need to go for a walk, that most mundane of human activities. I need to pretend that life is normal. To forget that just a short distance from my apartment stands Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of the coronavirus within New York City, itself America’s epicenter.
“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” I intoned solemnly when things were normal back in the BC days (Before COVID). “In truth the prison, unto which we doom/Ourselves; no prison is.” I winked at my “Forms in Poetry” class to let them know I felt their pain. It turned out to be our last face-to-face meeting for the semester. We were studying the sonnet and I’ve always used William Wordsworth’s love poem to strict forms as a pep talk for beginning prosodists. “And hence for me,/In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound/Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”
Easy for you to say, I tell my three-weeks-ago self. I had no idea what was about to hit us. I’ll bet my shrinking TIAA stash that you didn’t either.