Authors: Jodi Picoult
Jeremiah opened the door to a conference room. A frazzled group of estate sales specialists looked up. “That’s the intern?” one of them said. I was led to a computer in the corner, and told to start entering the hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes on art and property and belongings that were part of the estate. While I typed and double-checked my work and inventoried the list, the group behind me tossed out pitches that might convince the Vanderbilts to choose Sotheby’s over Christie’s.
For days I organized oils by Dutch Masters and Rolls-Royces and gilded horse carriages and listened to Jeremiah and the other senior specialists dream up a breathtaking pitch for an auction. Stepping into that room was like being wrapped by electricity; it was the confirmation I needed that the buzz provided by art did not begin and end at its creation.
The Vanderbilts picked Sotheby’s the day before my internship ended. There was champagne and speeches and a round of applause for me, the draft horse who had labored nights and weekends on the grunt work.
No matter what Eva St. Clerck thought of me.
I stole a bottle of Moët and drank it with Rodney in the handicapped bathroom. Over the course of the summer we’d become inseparable. He had been assigned to Islamic Art, but somehow convinced his senior specialist to let him hang out with the design team that structured the rooms and displays in which auctions took place. We wandered through the Met and the Whitney on weekends and made it our mission to find the best avocado toast in the city. I got him drunk when his boyfriend dumped him via text; he dragged me to sample sales and Cinderella-ed me out of my chinos and into deep-discount Max Mara and Ralph Lauren. “Here’s to Fine Wines,” I said, lifting the bottle to my lips.
future graduates of the Sotheby’s master’s class of 2013,” Rodney countered. Our plan was to matriculate in the company’s art business degree program together, get hired for real, and take over the art world.
Privately, I also wanted Eva St. Clerck to know who I was, and what I was capable of.
Nine years and several promotions later, Eva St. Clerck knows who I am: the protégée who secured Kitomi Ito’s Toulouse-Lautrec…and lost it.
When I wake up the next morning, the sun is swollen in the sky and beating so hot it makes the air ache. I pull on the bathing suit I had the uncanny prescience to pack in my carry-on, grab a towel, and walk to the edge of the ocean, dancing faster when the soles of my feet start to burn. The blisters on my hand have flattened into calluses.
The difference between the broiling air and the cold waves makes me gasp, but I draw in a deep breath and run into the surf, three long strides, and then dive underneath. When I surface, my hair is slicked back from my face, and I float on my back with my eyes closed. The salt dries on my cheeks, tightening my skin.
How long could I stay like this, suspended, blind? Where would I wind up?
I let my legs sink with gravity and squint at the horizon. I wonder if that’s the direction Finn’s in.
It feels like massive cognitive dissonance to be in this tropical paradise and to know, half a world away, New York City is bracing for a pandemic.
When you’re surrounded by desert, it’s inconceivable to think there are places that flood.
I wade out of the ocean, wrap myself in the towel, and wring out my ponytail. Suddenly all the hair stands up on the back of my neck, as if I am being watched. I whirl around, but there is no one on the beach. When I turn back toward the apartment, I see a blur of movement, but it is gone before I get close enough to see.
It isn’t until I’m in the shower that I realize I have no shampoo and no soap. And of course, no food, since I ate everything that Abuela left me last night. With my skin and hair still unwashed, I pull on my jeans from yesterday and a fresh T-shirt from the stash I found in the linen closet and walk back into Puerto Villamil. I’m hoping something is open now. My goal is to stock up on supplies and provisions, and to find a post office where I can get stamps and mail the postcard I wrote to Finn. If I can’t get texts or emails or calls out to him, at least he will have an old-fashioned letter.
But Puerto Villamil is a ghost town. The bars and restaurants and hostels and shops are all still dark and closed. The post office has a locked metal gate pulled down over its entryway. For a heart-stopping moment I wonder if maybe I’ve slept through an evacuation, if the entire island is empty except for me. Then I realize that one of the businesses, while still dark inside, has someone bustling around.
I knock on the door, but the woman inside shakes her head at me.
She puts down the box she is holding and unlocks the door.
“No perteneces aquí. Hay toque de queda.”
It is, I realize, a market. There are baskets on the counter filled with fruit, and a few narrow aisles sparsely lined with shelved dry goods. I pull cash out of my pocket. “I can pay.”
“Closed,” she says haltingly.
“Please,” I say.
Her face softens, and she holds up a hand with her fingers outstretched. Five items? Five minutes? I point to a yellow fruit in a basket at the counter. Guava, maybe. The woman picks it up. “Soap?” I say. “Sopa?”
She reaches onto a shelf and holds out a can of soup.
Well, I’ll take it, but I can’t shower with it. I mime scrubbing my hair, and under my arms, and she nods and adds a bar of Ivory to my pile. I say every Spanish food item in my narrow vocabulary:
agua, leche, café, huevo
. There is little that’s fresh, which limits my options, and which makes me wonder how or if the people on Isabela will get shipments of perishables like milk and eggs. For every item I manage to communicate, there are two that she doesn’t have; the locals must have known things were closing down and stocked up. “Pasta?” I say finally, and she finds three boxes of penne.
There are worse fates than having to eat only pasta.
“Stamps?” I ask. I hold out my postcard and point to the corner.
She shakes her head, and points across the street to the closed post office.
On the counter is a small stack of newspapers. I cannot read the Spanish headlines, but the picture makes it clear—it is a priest in a church in Italy, blessing scores of coffins filled with Covid casualties.
This is what is coming to America. This is what Finn will be dealing with.
And I am stuck here.
The shop owner holds out her hand, the universal symbol for payment. I offer a credit card and she shakes her head. I don’t have any Ecuadorian money and I still haven’t found an ATM. Panicked, I peel off two twenties and hand them to her before she can renege and take away my groceries. She locks the door again, and I head off with my plastic bag.
I’m halfway down the main street when I hear a ping on my phone. I pull it out of my pocket and watch a torrent of messages from Finn roll onto my screen.
I lost you.
Tried FaceTiming but…
Bad Wi-Fi? Will try you tomorrow
He’s texted multiple times since then, and finally seemed to realize that I still didn’t have cell service. The last message says that he’ll send an email instead, in case I find an internet café.
I look up and down the street at the tightly closed storefronts and snort.
But apparently, I am sitting in the one hot spot of service in Puerto Villamil, because when I check my inbox, somehow there is an email that has downloaded from Finn. I sit down cross-legged and start to read, absorbing his words like they are an oasis in a desert.
From: [email protected]
I can’t believe it’s only been two days. The schools are already shut down here, and bars and restaurants. We’ve got 923 cases in the city alone. Ten deaths. The subway is empty. It’s like New York is a shell, and all the people are in hiding.
Not that I’d know, because I haven’t left the hospital. They scrapped the model for surgical residents. You know how I used to bitch about being a junior resident, because I’d have to do nights and ED consults while the senior residents scrubbed in to the actual surgeries—and how you said that one day it would be my turn? Well, nope. I may be a fourth-year resident but that’s gone. No one is doing surgery anymore. All elective procedures—and even emergent ones, like appys and gallbladders—have been canceled, because the surgical ICU is filled with Covid patients. Residents are expendable, I guess, so we’ve all been reassigned to Covid, too.
To be fair, it’s the only illness we’re seeing. But I was trained as a surgeon, and suddenly I’m supposed to be an internal med doc treating infectious disease, and I have no idea what I’m doing.
Neither does anyone else.
I’m on hour 34 of my 12-hour shift, because there aren’t enough of us to take care of the patients. They started arriving and they haven’t stopped. They all show up gasping and by the time they get here, they’re already screwed. They try to suck in air, but there’s nowhere for the air to go, so they wind up damaging more lung—it’s this vicious cycle. Normally, we’d put patients like that on high-flow nasal cannulas, which can get them ten times as much oxygen, but they also would aerosolize the virus all over the place. So instead we use non-rebreather masks or small nasal cannulas. They don’t work. Nothing in our bag of tricks does. People are crashing left and right because they aren’t getting enough oxygen, and the only thing left to do is intubate. Which is the most dangerous thing of all, because we can’t get a patient on a vent without literally spreading the virus all over ourselves.
So we have armor, I guess, even though there’s not enough of it. Now, just to see a patient, I have to put on my hair covering, my N95 mask, then my face shield, then my paper gown over scrubs, then two pairs of gloves. We were sent videos to memorize the order, and we have spotters watching us to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything before we march into battle. It feels ridiculous, that this little filter over my face is the only thing protecting me from this virus. It takes six minutes to get into PPE, but twelve minutes to get it off, because that’s when you are more likely to infect yourself. It’s hot and itchy and miserable and I worry what it must feel like for the patients—we are acting as if they have the plague.
Which, maybe, they do.
We try not to stay in their rooms. We don’t touch them unless we have to. No one really knows how long the virus lasts on surfaces, so we assume the worst. When we come out we take off our gloves, toss them into the trash, and wash our hands. Then the cap goes into the trash, and we wash our hands. The gown is placed in a plastic bin, and we wash our hands. Then the shield comes off, and we wash our hands. Our N95 masks we have to reuse, because there aren’t enough. So we take them off and stick them in little cubbies, tagged with our names, and wash our hands. In Italy, docs are wearing hazmat suits like they’re entering a nuclear reactor, and I’m washing down my face mask with a fucking wipe.
My knuckles are cracked and bleeding.
I should not complain.
Today I had to do an emergency cricothyrotomy on a Covid patient. He was crashing, minutes away from going into cardiac arrest. I called RICU—the respiratory team—stat, but the guy’s neck was too thick and the anesthesiologist couldn’t get a good visual to intubate him fast enough. It was just me and the anesthesiologist and the nurse and the man gasping for air. I had to step in and do the emergency cric to secure the airway and get him intubated before it was too late. I was terrified, because, you know, if you do it wrong, if you miss one detail, you might get infected. I had to squeeze my hands together to keep them from shaking before I made the incision. I kept telling myself to do this efficiently and quickly and to get the fuck out of that room and sanitize myself.
When it was over the anesthesiologist and I left like we were on fire. I pulled off all my gear in the right order and scrubbed my hands and used Purell afterward and then I realized that the nurse was still in that room, with all those airborne molecules of virus. She was all of maybe 25. She was stroking the patient’s arm, and I saw her brush a tear from the man’s cheek, even though he was fast asleep. She was talking to him, even though he was sedated and couldn’t hear her.
Here I am bitching about wearing a paper space suit and making a cut, and she was providing real, true patient care.
And I thought: She’s the fucking hero.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. It feels good, though, to know you’re listening.
I don’t know how long I sit on the main street in Puerto Villamil rereading Finn’s email, the sun baking the back of my neck and the crown of my head. His description of the city and the hospital feels unreal, dystopian. How could so much change in just forty-eight hours?
Suddenly it feels juvenile and entitled to be upset about not staying in the hotel I booked, or being hungry. There is no way in hell I’m going to complain to Finn.
It’s so beautiful here,
It’s hard to know where to look—there’s water so clear you can see fish on the bottom and crazy dramatic hunks of lava rock and iguanas crossing Main Street.
The people are superfriendly too,
I describe the sea lion on the dock in Santa Cruz and the choppy ferry ride and I completely leave out the mob of frantic tourists that met me when I reached Isabela.
The only bad thing,
(aside from the lack of cell service) is that you’re not with me
I hate that I’m here, and that you’re in the thick of it. I wish I could be there for you.
I do not tell him that even if I decided to head home, there’s no way for me to get there.
I hit send.
I stare at the screen, holding my breath, until the notification pops up:
No internet connection.
In the field of auctions, video representation is nowhere near as important as the physical catalog. It’s far more important to have your clients pore over the stunning photographs, read the copy about the object’s provenance, to determine—from the placement in the book—how important the piece might be. After graduating from Sotheby’s with a master’s in art business, and training for a year, I was hired in 2014 as a junior cataloger in Imp Mod. My job was to write the words that accompanied the photos. A specialist might bring in the painting, but it was my task to bring it to life.