Authors: Jodi Picoult
There was a time when I thought having an apartment at the end of the hall, away from the ding of the elevator, was a bonus, but now it feels Herculean to make it all the way there. Finn unlocks the door and helps me take off my coat and then immediately goes to wash his hands. He washes them like a surgeon, long minutes elapsing, scrubbing under his nails and up past his wrists. I follow his lead.
I see the pile of household bills that Finn’s been too busy to pay and take a deep breath. All of this I can deal with tomorrow. The only thing I have to do now is remember how to live a normal life.
Finn carries my duffel into the bedroom and unpacks my things. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
“Can we get Thai?” I ask, and then I frown. “Is there still delivery?”
“If there wasn’t I’d be dead by now,” Finn says. “The usual?”
Spring rolls, satay, and massaman curry. I love that I don’t have to tell him. I nod and glance toward the bathroom. “I’m going to take a shower,” I announce, more to myself than to him, because there’s a tub I have to lift my leg over. But I’m going to have to do it sooner or later, and it might as well be while Finn is home to help me if I wind up sprawled on the floor.
As it turns out, I do fine. I am so proud—and so grateful to smell like my own soap and shampoo, instead of hospital versions. I brush and braid my hair, thinking of Vee, and put on clean leggings and my softest sweatshirt.
When I come into the living room, Finn grins. “You clean up nicely.”
“I really have nowhere to go but up.”
I sit down on the couch and turn on the television, skipping quickly away from MSNBC to a rerun of
. “Have you watched
?” I call out.
what?” Finn asks.
“Never mind.” I remind myself that the whole time I’ve been fighting for my life, Finn has been fighting for other people’s.
Suddenly he’s standing in front of me, holding out a steaming mug. “What’s this?”
“I don’t like hot milk,” I say.
Finn frowns. “You drank it the last time you were sick.”
Because he’d made it for me without asking if I wanted it. Because his mom used to make it for him, when he was feeling under the weather. Because I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t grateful.
“I’m not sick,” I tell him.
He looks at me skeptically.
“You’re a doctor. You should know,” I say. With a sigh I pat the couch next to me and set the mug on the side table. Finn sits down. “I know something really bad almost happened,” I say quietly. “But it didn’t. And I’m here. And I’m better.”
I slide closer to him and feel him go still. Immediately, I pull back to look at Finn’s face. “Are you worried you’ll catch it from me?”
A shadow of pain crosses his face. “More like the other way around.”
“If I just beat this motherfucker,” I say, “my veins must be full of antibodies.” I flex my arm. “I’m basically a superhero.”
That, finally, makes him smile. “Okay, Wonder Woman.”
I lean a little closer. “I wonder if antibodies are contagious.”
“I can categorically tell you they’re not,” Finn says.
“I mean, just in case,” I murmur against his neck. “Maybe we should try to get some into you.” I loop my arms around his neck and press my mouth against his. Finn hesitates, then kisses me back. I slide my hands under his sweater, feeling his heart beat against my palm.
“Diana,” he breathes, a little desperate. “You just got out of rehab.”
“Exactly,” I say.
I don’t know how to explain to him that when you find out you nearly died, there is a crucial need—a compulsion, really—to make sure you’re alive. I need to feel healthy and vital and desired. I need to burn with something that is not fever.
“Let me show you what I’ve learned,” I say to Finn, and I pull my sweatshirt over my head. I shimmy my leggings down to my ankles and kick them off. “And watch this.” I get to my feet, turn to face him, and sit down on his lap with my knees on either side of him. “Stand, pivot, transfer,” I whisper.
Finn’s arms come around me as I grind against him. It is a matter of moments before his clothes are off, before the feel of his skin against mine sets me on fire. Teeth and lips and fingertips, my nails on his scalp, his palms bracketing my hips. I sink onto Finn and he flips us so that I am lying on the couch, dissolving around him. I succumb to the here and the now, focusing on the symphony of our breath, the percussion of our bodies, the crescendo.
When the buzzer rings, we are both so surprised we roll onto the floor.
“Shit,” Finn says. “Dinner.”
He scrambles to his feet and I am jealous of his easy, unthinking movement. In his hurry, he pulls on my sweatshirt instead of his own, and it stretches too tight across his chest. As Finn hops into his boxers, I watch. “Don’t forget the…tip,” I say.
A laugh bursts out of him. “I
believe you said that.”
He is back a few minutes later, holding a brown paper bag full of Thai food. He looks at me, almost shyly. “Hungry?”
“Starving,” I say.
I watch him put the food on the counter, take out some disinfectant spray and paper towels, and start wiping everything down. “What…what are you doing that for?”
He blinks at me. “Oh, right. You don’t know. It’s for safety. You should use gloves, too, when you go to the mailbox, and let the mail sit for two days, just to make sure—”
“To make sure of what?”
“That there’s no virus on it.”
He washes his hands again vigorously as I stand up and walk toward him. “You know what has no virus on it?” I ask, and I pull his head back down to mine.
The food cools on the counter as we tangle ourselves on the couch. When I finally unspool in Finn’s arms, I open my eyes to find him watching me. He brushes my hair off my face. “Something’s different about you,” he murmurs.
“I like being back here,” I whisper.
What he likely thinks I mean:
not in the hospital
What I actually mean:
not wandering in my clouded, confused thoughts. In his embrace and wholly, blissfully present.
Finn is, and always has been, my anchor.
We eat in our underwear, and make love again, knocking over the sanitized cartons of food. At some point, we stumble to the bedroom and crawl under the covers. Finn’s arm comes around me, holding my back tight against his front. It’s not the way we usually sleep—we have a king bed and we tend to retreat to our corners; I get cold too easily and Finn throws the covers off. But, oddly, I don’t mind. If he is holding me tight, I can’t disappear.
I wait until he falls asleep, until I feel his breath falling in even puffs on the back of my shoulder. “I have to tell you something,” I whisper. “Everything I dreamed in the hospital? I think it was…real.”
There is no response.
“I was in the Galápagos,” I say, testing the words out loud. “There was a man there.”
Almost imperceptibly, Finn’s arm tightens around me. I hold my breath.
“As long as you know who you’re really having sex with,” he murmurs.
He does not let go of me. And I do not sleep.
The next morning when Finn leaves for work, we do not talk about what I said in the middle of the night. He asks me a hundred times if I’m all right here on my own, and I spackle a smile on my face and tell him yes, and then the minute he walks out the door I have a panic attack.
What if I trip and fall?
What if I cough so hard I can’t stop?
What if there’s a fire and I can’t move fast enough?
All I want to do is call Finn and tell him to come back, but it’s both selfish and impossible.
So instead, I take Candis into the kitchen with me, leaning on the quad cane when I have to balance to get a mug from the cabinet. I fill up the kettle with water and put it on the stove, moving slowly and deliberately. I grind enough coffee for the Aeropress and congratulate myself on doing all this without stumbling. I slosh hot coffee all over my hand on the way to the table, and the first day of the rest of my life begins.
In the past, when Finn wasn’t working tirelessly through a pandemic, we’d spend our days off lingering over coffee, reading
The New York Times
The Boston Globe
online. Finn would read aloud highlights about politics and sports. I gravitated toward the arts pages, and the obituaries. It sounds morbid, but it was actually for work: I kept a running list on my computer desktop of those who might have collections to be sold posthumously at Sotheby’s.
Of course, I don’t have a job at Sotheby’s now. I don’t know when or if I will again. Finn says I shouldn’t worry about that; he thinks we can make do on his salary for a while if we are careful. But I have a feeling there are financial hurdles we’re going to face that we can’t even imagine yet. We are only a month into this pandemic.
New York Times
banner I read:
NYC DEATH TOLL SOARS PAST 10,000 IN REVISED VIRUS COUNT.
headlines are only marginally less anxiety-producing:
CHELSEA’S SPIKE IN CORONAVIRUS CASES CHALLENGES HOSPITALS AND STATE; BOSTON SCIENTIFIC GETS OK TO MAKE A LOW-COST VENTILATOR.
I click on the link to the obituaries.
Couple married more than 75 years dies within hours of each other:
After Ernest and Moira Goldblatt got married in the summer of 1942, they spent the rest of their lives together, right up until the very end. On April 10, the couple passed away at the Hillside Nursing Home in Waltham, less than two hours apart. Moira, 96, had recently tested positive for Covid-19. Ernest, 100, had been sick but his test for the disease was still outstanding. In an effort to reduce the spread of the virus, nursing home residents who were infected were transferred to a separate space. But there was no doubt that the Goldblatts would be staying together.
I click to turn the page and scan the names. I click again.
There are twenty-six pages of obituaries today in
With shaking hands, I close my computer.
There are already so many people who have lost someone, who’ll never receive another lopsided grin or smooth a cowlick or cry on a shoulder that smells like home. They’ll always see the empty seat at a wedding, a birthday, breakfast.
Why did I survive, when those they loved didn’t?
It’s not like I did anything right—I don’t even remember going to the hospital.
But it’s also not like they did anything wrong.
I feel a crushing sense that if I am here, there has to be an explanation. Because the alternative—that this virus is random, that anyone and everyone could die—is so overwhelming that it is hard to breathe.
I’m not conceited enough to think that I am special; I’m not religious enough to think I was spared by a higher power. I may not ever know why I’m still here and why the people in the rooms on either side of me at the hospital are not. But I can pivot on this point of the axis, and make sure whatever happens from here on in is worthy of this second chance I’ve been given.
I just don’t know what that looks like, exactly.
I reopen my computer, and type into Google:
Jobs in art business.
A string of them pop onto my screen: Senior Business Development Manager, Artsy. Adjunct faculty, Institute of Art. Creative Director, Omni Health Corp. Art Director—Business Banking Division, JPMorgan Chase.
All look equally uninspiring.
I truly enjoyed my work at Sotheby’s. I loved the people I met and the art I helped sell.
Or at least that’s what I’d told myself.
I let my mind drift back to the last time I saw Kitomi and her painting.
If I got sick that night, and if asymptomatic people can spread the virus—could I have infected her?
Panicked, I look her up online. As far as I can tell, she is still alive and well in New York with her painting.
I remember how it felt to stand in the presence of that kind of artistic greatness. In front of that Toulouse-Lautrec, my fingers had itched for a brush, even though I was no Toulouse-Lautrec, no Van Gogh. I was a competent artist, but not a great one, and I knew it. Like my father, I could make a decent copy—but that’s different from creating an original masterpiece.
I had grown up in the shadow of my mother’s prize-winning photography. So instead of trying to create my own legacy—and failing—I reshaped my skill set to fit a field adjacent to art.
I erase one word in the search bar.
Jobs in art
Fashion designer. Animator. Art teacher. Illustrator. Tattoo artist. Interior designer. Motion graphics designer. Art therapist.
Art therapy is the practice of incorporating visual art media to improve cognitive and sensory-motor function, self-esteem, and emotional coping skills for mental health treatment.
Immediately I am back on a beach in Isabela, making tiny dolls out of flotsam and jetsam and setting them in a sandcastle with Beatriz. I am writing our names on lava rocks and making them part of a standing wall. I am explaining to her why monks make beautiful mandalas and then brush the sand away.
I’ve already been thinking of another career, without even realizing it. I’ve practiced it, with Beatriz.
I rub my hand over my face. I imagine filling out an application for admission to a graduate program in art therapy, listing my imaginary experience in the field.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Galápagos wasn’t something that happened, but something that is
When it starts to feel like a chicken-and-egg logic bomb, I decide that I have done enough job searching for the day. Instead, I open up Instagram and see college friends giving thumbs-up on planes, cashing in on cheap vacation deals. Another friend has posted a picture of her aunt, who died yesterday of Covid, with a long tribute. A celebrity I follow is doing a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. My former neighbor posts a teary video about postponing her wedding when they were totally going to do it in a
. It’s like there are two different realities unfolding at the same time.
I do not post often on Facebook, but I have an account. When I open it, there are dozens of notifications from acquaintances:
Sending healing thoughts! I’m praying for you, Diana. You got this.
Frowning, I click onto the post that inspired these comments. Finn must have logged in to my account, because he’s written a short paragraph explaining that I have been hospitalized with Covid and put on a ventilator.
I tamp down the annoyance at the thought of him logging in as me.
The comments are supportive, effusive, heartfelt. Some are political, claiming that the virus is a hoax and I have the flu. Other friends attack that poster on my behalf. All this while I was unconscious.
On a whim, I type
into the search tab, and a string of articles comes up, as well as a list of support groups. Most are private, but I dive into one that is not and start reading through the timeline.
Has anyone else found their taste has changed? I used to love spicy, and now not so much. Plus, everything smells like bacon.
Sleep is impossible—getting migraines every night.
Am I the only one losing hair? I had long, thick curls and now my hair’s super thin; how long will this last?
Hang in there,
someone else has responded
. Mine’s stopped falling out!
Try vitamin D.
Tested positive 3/11, tested positive again on day 10, still testing positive a month later—is it safe for me to be around people?
Question for the ones who have had Covid-19: have y’all been getting nosebleeds on just one side?
Can I get this virus again if I’ve already had it?
My doctor won’t believe me when I say that I didn’t have heart palpitations before…
I am getting more and more freaked out. What if leaving the hospital is only just the start? What if I have long-term effects that haven’t even shown up yet?
And if I
get them, is that something else to feel guilty about?
I am about to close my laptop, crawl back into bed, and give up when I see another post:
Anyone else who was on a vent have weird dreams/nightmares?
I fall into this rabbit hole and start reading.
I was bike riding around town with my husband. Now, we don’t bike ride, we’re large people. We went to a crowded diner and he went inside to put our names down for a table. He was gone for a while. Finally I went in and started looking around. I asked the greeter if she’d seen him. She said no and I went back outside and one of the bikes was gone. When they took me off the vent I found out he had passed while I was under. I didn’t even know until two weeks later.
I was in a hospital that was Broadway-themed, but in a bad way, like being trapped in It’s a Small World at Disney, you know? Every hour everything stopped and there was a big musical revue. It was so crowded that I couldn’t even be in the room to watch it. The only way to get anyone’s attention was by hitting a buzzer, and if you did, the song changed to one of shame, because you weren’t supposed to stop the performance.
I was in space trying to contact people to get help before I ran out of oxygen.
I was at an electronic dance festival and I was some kind of creature in a tank of water, and the people who came to the festival kept feeding me through tubes while I floated.
I was in a videogame and I knew that I had to beat the other players if I wanted to survive.
I was sitting at my childhood kitchen table and my mother was making pancakes. I could smell them so distinctly and when she brought them over with maple syrup I could taste that, too. When my plate was empty she put her hand on my shoulder and she told me I had to stay at the table because I wasn’t finished. My mom’s been dead for 32 years.
I can’t remember anything clearly but it was SO REAL. Not like a dream with jump cuts, or how you’re supposed to wake up the minute before you die. I could feel and smell and see ALL of it. And I died. A whole bunch of times over and over.
I was being kidnapped by the hospital staff. I knew they were Nazis and I didn’t know why no one else could see that. When I woke up for real, they had tied my hands down because I kept trying to hit the nurses.
I was being held captive.
I was in a room that was crawling with bugs and someone told me that this was how you got Covid, and I shouldn’t go near the bugs. But they were already covering me.
My brother and I were in a freight car and we had monitors on us that showed our heart rates going lower and lower because we didn’t have enough air. There was all this garbage in there with us and I found a Christmas card and wrote HELP on it and told my brother to hold it through the slats in the car’s wooden side.
I was tied to a pole and I knew I was going to be sold as a sex slave.
I was in the basement of NYU (I’ve never even been to New York City, so don’t ask me why) and someone was trying to give me medicine and I knew it was poison.
I was locked in a basement and tied down and I couldn’t get out.
I pause, thinking of my dream about Finn when I was in the Galápagos, or my not-dream, or whatever it was. It, too, had been in a basement. And I was tied down.
I dreamed that my four-year-old grandson, Callum, drowned. I went to the funeral with my daughter and helped her grieve and lived through her having two more kids, twin girls, Annabelle and Stacy. When I woke up for real, I asked her if I could see the twins and she thought I was crazy. She said the only grandkid I had was Callum, and sure enough he was alive and well.
I think about my mother’s face, still and white on the iPad, her chest barely rising.
I read for hours, stopping only to eat leftover Thai food for lunch. There are hundreds of posts from people who have been delirious from lack of oxygen or who have, like me, survived ventilation. I read lush, sprawling dreamscapes. Some are terrifying, some are tragic. Some have common threads—the videogame scenario, the basement entrapment, and seeing someone who’s died. Some stories are detailed, some are a scant few words. All are described as painfully, unequivocally real.
As one person in the Facebook group puts it:
If I’d never woken up, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Everything I was seeing, feeling, EXPERIENCING was genuine.
For the first time since I’ve awakened, I realize that I’m not crazy.
That I’m not alone.
That if all my good memories of the Galápagos didn’t actually happen…then neither did my bad ones.
Which is why, come hell or high water, I am going to visit my mother.
That day, Finn calls me three times from work. Once he asks if he left his phone charger in the bedroom (no). The second time he asks if I want him to pick up dinner on the way home (sure). The third time I tell him he should just ask me how I’m doing, since that’s why he’s really calling.