Photographs by Jesse Lee Kercheval
From my living room window in Montevideo, Uruguay, at sunset, I see a young couple on the roof of the tall apartment building across the street. Now that we are under quarantine, there have been people out all day on their azoteas, the flat roofs used to hang laundry, or sitting on their balconies. But this building is the tallest one on the block, twelve stories, with no railing at all on the roof. I have never seen anyone on it.
At first it is just the young man, exercising. Every time he goes close to the edge I hold my breath. Then the woman joins him and they start dancing, slowly, close together. Maybe a tango, which would be fitting here in Uruguay where the tango was born, but if there is music, I am too far away to hear.
I take a very distant photo of them with my iPhone. And because this is what I am doing instead of seeing people face to face, I post it on Facebook.
Just looking at the photo of them twelve stories up gives me acrophobia. But the Facebook reaction I get is not fear of falling. “They are standing too close!” a friend posts nearly instantly. “Tell them they should stand six feet apart! Social distancing, please!”
I tried to start this essay in February. I wrote:
Four weeks ago, I was in China. Today, as I write this, nearly all the world’s airlines have cancelled their flights to China. Planeloads of Americans have been evacuated from Wuhan, the city infamous as the home of the shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and birthplace of 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease. The evacuees have been placed in quarantine on various US military bases.
I didn’t get further—life and the crisis were moving too fast. So today, as I try to start again, I have to revise:
Ten weeks ago, I was in China. I left just as the government shut Wuhan, then Shanghai where we had just been, and Bejing where we had been before that. The Chinese government sealed in its people and the world closed its doors to keep the danger out. Or so they hoped. Now I am in Montevideo, Uruguay and its two borders—with Argentina and Brazil—are closed. The airport is closed. My home state of Wisconsin is under a “Safer at Home” order, the very midwesternly polite name for quarantine. The President of the United States is talking about a cordon sanitaire around New York, shades of Wuhan. No one in, no one out.
By the time I look at the previous paragraph tonight or tomorrow morning, maybe even in an hour, most of it will need to be rewritten.
The world has changed so many times I feel like I am, as they used to say on Star Trek, caught in a tear in the space-time continuum. Every day a new set of “I never thought this could happen” headlines, edicts, numbers. Oh the numbers. Infected, in ICU, dead. It is all unbelievable one moment, then normal the next.
One day, who knows which, I heard the news that Austria had stopped a train from Italy. What are they doing? I thought, They can’t close the border with Italy! But they did. One after another, the countries in Europe’s Schengen zone, where since 1985 you could travel from one to the next without showing your passport, announced they were closing their borders, and then they snapped shut.
The virus hit South America on March 13, and those countries sealed their borders so fast that, as I write this, countries around the world are still trying to bring home citizens stuck in closed airports in Chile and Peru.
So I am here in Montevideo, borders shut, airport closed. My home in Wisconsin might as well be in another dimension, another galaxy. Suddenly there is no way to connect the dots, no way to go from here to there. Tonight, on the evening news, they announced the first Uruguayan death.
Now, in the bright light of morning, I can see something glinting, glittering on the edges of the roof where the couple danced. A single string of barbed wire runs around the perimeter. So this twelve-story tower does have a border between its walls and the world. I do what I tell my students not to do, and google “border.”
A border may be:
agreed by the countries on both sides imposed by the country on one side imposed by third parties, e.g. an international conference inherited from a former state, colonial power or aristocratic territory never formally defined a de facto military ceasefire line
Here there are no troops on the streets as there are in some other countries, including the United States if you count the National Guard. But the world’s leaders are all talking about this being a war, a war against an “invisible enemy.”
A frontier, unlike a border, can be “the outer limit of what has been explored.” Stepping off that roof would be testing that outer limit. This worldwide plague is a test of our outer limits.
The first time I thought about going to Europe, I hesitated. I wanted to go. My boyfriend, teaching English on an American army base in Germany, wanted me to come. It seemed that everyone I knew who could save the money for a Eurail pass had already been to Europe. But my father had died a few months before. And my mother had been ill—first alcoholism, then addiction to Valium, then, after she gave it all up, just physically broken. She was not going to get any better.
I hesitated to ask her for advice. When I asked her if I should graduate from high school early and get married to a Methodist minister at 17, she said, Why should I care?
But that was long before she gave up the Bourbon and the Valium, so I did ask her. Should I go?
She didn’t hesitate. Go, she said, You never know when the world will change and it won’t be possible.
It seemed a very odd thing to say. She didn’t mean that I might break up with my boyfriend. She meant the world might change. To me, age 23, the future was an open door.
My mother had been born during World War I and was in the Women’s Army Corp during World War II, sailing to Europe when the only way to go there was as a soldier, every trip weighted with mortal danger. I was born in France in 1956 when my father was working for NATO, and the memory of war was still raw. That was her Europe, her world. Wars happen repeatedly. Borders close, then they open again. I took her advice and I went.
I arrived in Montevideo on February 2. I had first come here in 2010 on a sabbatical from my university, and that visit began an obsession with Uruguayan poetry and translation. Since then, I have visited often, for a semester or a year when I had a grant, or on quick trips for conferences and book launches. This time I was supposed to be here until June 1, then fly home to Madison, Wisconsin on American Airlines. Now that flight does not exist. American has parked its planes and cancelled its flights to South America.
The first time I came to Uruguay, I remember the ride in from the airport, along the Rambla, the highway that runs along the waterfront. On my right, we passed big white houses with ostentatiously traditional thatched roofs, then increasingly tall condominium towers. On my left, slight waves broke on the yellow sand. It looked familiar. I grew up in Florida, on the Atlantic Ocean. And it did not look like anywhere I had ever been. Thatched roofs?
Suddenly, I felt dizzy. I remember holding on to the car seat with both hands. It wasn’t the long overnight flight. It wasn’t car sickness, though our driver drove with Montevidean abandon. It just suddenly struck me how very far away Uruguay was from Wisconsin, from anywhere I had lived before. I felt the curve of the earth. I imagined myself a very tiny dot on my childhood globe.
I thought of all the people who had immigrated to Uruguay, arriving by boat in great waves from Italy and Spain in the early part of the last century. They had known they were not going back.
Good thing there are planes these days, I thought. But now there are not.
I had spent January traveling with my son, Max, who had just finished a semester studying in Shanghai, graduating with a major in Chinese. It was my first trip to China. Since my first trip to Europe, I have traveled a good deal, but somehow I could never quite imagine visiting China until my son was living there.
He had arranged everything—for me, his dad, and his sister, Magda, who is in her fifth year teaching in Japan. It was his first turn as the official organizer of a family trip. We all praised him for the hotels and hostels he had chosen, for the train reservations, for being our guide wherever we went, never letting us go the wrong way on the many subways, finding restaurants and ordering delicious food for all of us, over and over again.
We were in Beijing when the first reports of a virus in Wuhan started appearing in the news. Apparently, people had caught it from animals in a seafood market. The doctors said not to worry, that it could not be transmitted from one person to another. A week or so later they announced it could be transmitted between humans, but only with difficulty, only between people living and eating together. At the time, we didn’t know that was not true.
We started in Shanghai, then traveled to Bejing, Nanjing, Suzhou and back to Shanghai. Everywhere we went there were preparations for the coming Lunar New Year celebrations. Temples, gardens and the tops of city walls were being filled with giant Disneyesque mice in candy colors ready to welcome in the Year of the Rat.
Those celebrations never happened. Now our photos of those bright pink and blue mice with YEAR 2020 over them seem the opposite of celebratory. I wonder if the mice are all still standing, alone in empty parks and on top of empty city walls.
Our plan, all along, had been to leave before everyone in China went on vacation, traveling for pleasure or home to see family in what was described, over and over again, as the “largest annual migration of people in the world,” the mind-numbing figure of three billion travelers mentioned casually. Three billion. We wanted to beat the rush, so we flew to from Shanghai to Osaka, Japan, on January 17. Even then there were doctors in Wuhan who knew the truth, and government officials who were trying to keep what they knew a secret. One of them, Li Wenliang, had been rebuked by the police. When he died, there was an outpouring of anger and grief. There would be others who spoke out or reported what was happening. But this history, as far as I can tell, is being scrubbed from the virtual world as fast as Chinese government censors can do it.
After the visit to China, I went to Uruguay to work on an anthology of Uruguayan women poets and to have three book launches alongside the poets that I’d translated. Book launches in Uruguay are like wedding receptions. Wine! Music! Finger food! I was here to celebrate the results of my hard work and see friends.
Instead, in this era of coronavirus, I am in a city full of the poets I want to see, but can only talk to on Skype or Zoom or Whatsapp, the same way I talk to my friends back in Wisconsin, or my two children now holed up together in Japan. If the coronavirus shuts borders, in some ways the current reliance on internet communication erases them. For better or worse, I can still sit in on faculty meetings at my university back in Wisconsin.
On the other hand, it seems surreal to be able to see a friend’s house from the window of my seventh floor apartment and not be able to just walk over and ring the doorbell and have her open the door and kiss me on one cheek as Uruguayans do. Standing at the window and looking beyond her house, between the tall apartment buildings and across the trees in the Parque Rodó, I can see all the way to the sea.
Except it is not the sea. Though Montevideans call it el mar, it is actually the wide mouth of the Rio de la Plata. When I could walk five blocks there and stand on the sand of Playa Ramirez, the waves would be the color of iced tea one day—fresh water, brown with the tannin of the trees further up the Rio de la Plata, up the River Uruguay all the way to distant Paraguay—and blue the next, when the wind and tide pushed the cold salt water of the Atlantic back onto the beach.
From my window it looks perfectly vertical, like a child would draw it—four inches of dark blue crayoned hard on the paper. Then above, a light blue sky filling the rest of the page up to the edge that is the top of the window frame. It looks for all the world like a solid blue wall surrounding the city. Across the river is Buenos Aires, Argentina. But, another closed border, there are no ferries now.
In 2018, the year before our trip to China, my family all met in the middle for Christmas. Somehow we all got cheap tickets to Berlin. My daughter flew from Japan. My son, my husband and I flew from Chicago to Keflavik to Berlin on Iceland Air. On the way I watched an Icelandic murder mystery, then an Icelandic cooking show.
In 1988, the last time I’d been in Berlin, the wall was still up. We spent an evening in East Berlin, and what I remember most from that side of the wall, with the dark, silent city behind me, were the lights on the other side, and the roar of distant traffic.
My husband and I took a train into Poland to visit friends. On the way back, just outside Berlin, East German border police came on the train and made us all get off and stand in the weeds by the side of the track. They had mirrors on poles to check under the train cars for people trying to escape to the West. They wore tall black leather boots and tightly fitted dark green uniforms and went up and down the line with tightly leashed German shepherds. I was frightened. One soldier had a briefcase strapped his chest which he flipped open to form a desk, complete with a light. He took each passport and stared at it under the light, then nodded curtly and stamped it, hard. When I took mine back, my hand was shaking.
Safely back in West Berlin, we went to a beer garden. It was a hot summer day, and the idea was to sit in the shade, but I didn’t feel well. I remember putting my head down on the small metal table. “Do you feel like you are going to throw up?” my husband asked.
“No,” I said, “but I have this pain. Right, there—” I touched my right side and flinched.
“You have appendicitis,” my husband said, putting down his mug of beer. “We need to get you to a hospital.”
The next day, a young female doctor wearing white Birkenstocks took out my appendix. I woke up to pea soup and liverwurst in a room with three elderly women. Each of us had a bed in our own corner. Each one of the women had tripped in her flat, each stuffed with the furniture of generations, and broken something—a shoulder, an arm, a hip.
They had been there for weeks and were settled in. It was their room. Even though there was a record heat wave, every time the nurse opened the window, they shut it as soon as she left. They did not believe in fresh air. If one of my toes so much as touched the floor, when I was trying to put on my slippers to go to the bathroom, they would all three bark at me. I was trying to kill myself. When the nurse let me go down the hall to shower and I came back with wet hair. I thought I would never hear the end of it.
After lights out, they would lie in their beds and talk about their relatives on the other side of the wall, sisters and cousins that they had not seen in forty years. That would have made me feel sad and sympathetic except that their other favorite topic was talking about how great the old days were, the nights spent dancing with Waffen SS officers.
They wanted to see their loved ones, so close but so far away, just once before they died. If only the wall would come down. I lay there, sweating in my bed and thought, “Not in your lifetime, you old bats.” Less than a year later, the wall came down. People took hammers to it and saved the chunks for souvenirs. My mother had been right. You never knew when the world would change.
On my return trip to Berlin with my son and daughter, we rented an apartment about three blocks into what had been East Berlin. To walk to the streetcar we crossed over Bernauer Strasse, where people had leapt from windows to freedom as the wall was being built, where others were shot for doing the same after it was done.
Every time we crossed that imaginary line I said it seemed impossible, unbelievable. My children rolled their eyes, the way I had rolled my eyes when my mother spoke of a world where countries closed their doors. Frontiers between countries were just dotted lines on a map for anyone so young. Now they are both in Japan. Max is unable to return to China to study Mandarin. Their parents are in quarantine in South America. And no place, no matter how tightly sealed off, is safe.
This morning I get up early to buy groceries and beat the crowds. Uruguay is not like the United States where you go to Costco and buy two months’ worth of food to stuff in your freezer, pantry, and fridge. In Uruguay people shop every day, even twice a day, and there is not much frozen or canned food. Everyone goes to the pasta store for raviolis on Sunday and for gnocchi on the last day of the month, the Día de noqui, a simple food no more potatoes and flour for when money is tight. Montevideo has big, modern supermarkets, usually attached to one of the malls. But in my neighborhood, the supermarkets are cramped ones carved out of old houses.
In the past, any store in Montevideo at nine on a Sunday morning would have been empty except for the employees. Montevideo is not an early-morning city. But on this coronavirus morning, other people have my idea. So there are ten shoppers in the store and maybe ten employees: two cashiers, a few manning the deli and butcher counters and three or four in the aisles, stacking and mopping. None of us want to be in one of the short, narrow aisles with anyone who might have the virus. We wait for space. We are frozen until someone moves. An old man takes forever at the milk cooler, and I just stand there watching him because the end of my aisle dead-ends at the back wall. He finally chooses his bag of milk and moves toward the wine aisle, and I cross the frontier.
I used to love shopping for food. Now I wish I could hold my breath the whole time I am in the market. At the milk case I actually do hold my breath, thinking of the man, sweating, a bit pale, who stood there so long trying to decide between nonfat and whole, trying not to breathe in any floating aerosolized coronavirus. I grab two bags of whole milk and two of liquid yoghurt, trying to shop for the week.
When we were in China, there were security guards everywhere, but it seemed like a joke. Teenage boys in uniforms stood beside x-ray machines at the entrance to the subways. Every other backpack or purse set off the alarms, and no one payed any attention. Then coronavirus hit and suddenly all that security wasn’t a joke.
On January 16, the night before we leave Shanghai for Japan, we have dinner with an old friend who teaches there. He was a music teacher in the public schools in Wisconsin for years, then met a Chinese doctoral student and fell in love. At the restaurant his girlfriend orders a banquet. We have soup dumplings, Peking duck, stir-fried noodles, and at least four more dishes—honestly, I lose track. The Lunar New Year is starting and my friend has just taught his last day of classes. He is on vacation. We drink very large beers and ask the waiter to take our pictures. Everyone at the tables around us is doing the same. We hug goodbye at the metro station. The lights of Shanghai blaze around us.
On January 23, the government shut Wuhan and started to shut Shanghai. At first, the music teacher’s family and friends urged him to leave while he still could. He said, No. How he could he leave his girlfriend? How could he fly home to the US where he had nowhere to live, no job, and no health insurance?
At first, my friend could leave his apartment to shop when he wanted. Then only once every three days. Then not at all. Food delivery was arranged by the local committee and left at the front of the locked compound once a week. He taught online, perched on a tiny table with his laptop. He posted videos on Facebook of him playing the cello. He looked pale, and, to be honest, each week he looked worse.
Now, two months later, he is allowed out into the gardens in his compound. Yesterday, he posted a photo of himself on the street outside.
And we are starting our quarantine in Montevideo, wondering if hanging our arms out the window of our apartment will produce enough vitamin D or if we should risk a trip to the pharmacy to buy some capsules. His relatives in Wisconsin are all locked down, safer at home. Now we are the ones who have to order their groceries delivered and wait inside to see what shows up.
If I could leave my apartment in Montevideo, I could get on the 116 bus that stops in front of my house and go to the Ciudad Vieja, which used to be all the Montevideo there was. You enter the Ciudad Vieja through an arch in the last remaining bit of the old city wall. It wasn’t just a decorative wall, either. Montevideo was under siege for nine years, from 1843 to 1852. It was an international cause célèbre. Alexandre Dumas wrote a novel inspired by the siege called The New Troy. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great unifier of Italy, fought there, leading an Italian immigrant battalion.
In 1843, 15,000 people lived in Montevideo. Soldiers fell in battle or recovered from their wounds in various regimental and military hospitals. But most of the people inside Montevideo were civilians, and medical records of those years read like a list of all the plagues that came before COVID-19. In 1844 epidemics of whooping cough and scarlet fever caused 1,218 civilian deaths. In 1845 came dysentery and typhoid. In 1846 and 1847, all four of those diseases plus deaths from “croup.” In 1849 there was an outbreak of encephalitis and an unknown fever. Nine hundred people died that year. 1850 brought measles, and from the ships on the Rio de la Plata, yellow fever.
In 1851, the siege ended. The Uruguayan guide book I own says, “Then Montevideo prospered and expanded beyond the old city walls.”
Right now, the internet is full of photos and videos of deserted streets. Seeing Times Square and the Champs Elysée completely empty is terribly fascinating. Every local newspaper has shots of its town of empty squares, empty malls, empty playgrounds. I watch a video of Venice shot from one of the vaporetti, the water buses usually jammed with people. The boat is empty, and the city that a month ago was about to be crushed to death by tourists is vacant, as if all the people had disappeared, been raptured or abducted by aliens.
On April 13, when the first four cases were announced in Uruguay, time sped up. The US Embassy sent emails saying there was a chance to get on the last few flights. They were going to Lima, Santiago de Chile, Sao Paulo. With luck, we could get flights on to the US from there. We thought about it. But the other South American countries were shutting their airports, too. We decided to stay. The journey seemed more dangerous than staying. The next day’s news was filled with footage of Americans stuck in airports in Peru and Chile and photos of Americans crushed into day-long lines at passport control in American airports. “The perfect breeding ground for an outbreak,” the commentators all said.
It could have been us. Stuck in Lima. In that scrum at O’Hare. My son, Max, is trying to plot a move between one place and another. His Japanese visa is about to expire and he is trying to get a flight back to Wisconsin. We think it would be better if he could stay in Japan with his sister, but the government there, clearly, does not agree. Maybe they are right. Maybe they are terribly wrong.
It is impossible to know, however much time you spend reading the news or counting up the numbers, whether it would be better to be in Montevideo, Uruguay, or Madison, Wisconsin, or Kanazawa, Japan. That is the truth right now. There is no knowing. Maybe my friend in Shanghai was right to stay put. Maybe he drew the lucky card. Maybe.
While I was writing this, the numbers here in Uruguay have gone up. The numbers all over the world have gone up. By the time you read this, they will be higher still.
Right after Uruguay got its first four diagnosed cases, I was locking the door to our apartment and suddenly I found that I was afraid. Really that is too weak a word. I suddenly felt sick with fear.
I had felt anxious since we left China. Although that feeling came and went with the distractions of life, I always had my eye on the news. I was worried and made an effort to gather all the necessary information. I was checking the exits, as it were, and making alternate plans. Now there are no more plans to be made. There is no escape from the coronavirus, really, no matter where you are.
I am 63. I am going to die. My parents both died at 65. My sister is sure 65 will be our expiration date was well. I joke with her that I have my eyes set on 100. No matter which is my final age, I know I have fewer years ahead of me than behind. But I do not want to die alone in a hospital with a ventilator down my throat, and I don’t want anyone I love to die that way.
Nearly forty years ago, on the day that my mother died, I was driving north from Tallahassee, Florida, to Thomasville, Georgia, where she was living with my sister. It is a lovely drive, a road lined with trees hung with Spanish moss. I had the radio on. This was 1981—before cell phones. I didn’t know my mother had gone into shock and had been raced to the hospital. She had been ill a long time, but not with anything that was going to kill her, her doctor had told me.
When I reached the hospital, my sister was in the waiting room. They had already told her. They had put our mother in one of those inflatable shock suits, she told me. The last thing she said to my sister was Please, get me out of here.
Now I think about the pressure of that suit, squeezing my mother’s lungs.
She wanted out. I want out.
Don’t we all?