How to Survive a Pandemic, Ashley Webster
A guided house tour: spring break, March 13-21, 2020, Prospect Heights, IL.
In the mornings I sit in an armchair in front of them, staring out into a yard the size of a small playground, mechanical pencil slipping like a fish out of my awkward right-handed grasp.
In the United States, there are close to 3000 cases of COVID-19 with 59 deaths, as of three minutes ago. My mom and sister are back home in Malaysia, where the national number of cases is 428, with the highest concentration in my state— but 42 recoveries and no deaths. My father touched down in Australia a few hours ago, where there are 300 or so cases nationwide. We are split up over three continents and two oceans.
In this household we have writers, dancers, musicians, psychologists, mathematicians, three continents, five countries, and seven to eight languages among us. We have so much to offer. But what, specifically? We are fragile too.
In the basement, one of my new friends, a freshman music major, practices the double bass. It has been a long time since I heard classical strings.
Typing is much easier than writing by hand, but I am determined to finally become ambidextrous. For years I toyed with the idea of writing with my right hand; two years ago I even committed to practicing the alphabet —for about a month. Recently I resigned to saying, “I aspire to be ambidextrous.” Now, with a fractured ring finger, the choice isn’t mine – and I suppose I’m happy about it.
A staple of each bedroom (or living area converted into a bedroom). My friend Ali and I add ours to the house’s collection on Friday the 13th. She packed hers to last for one month, until we were allowed to get back on campus. We’ll live out of suitcases and try to keep everything in them. But the boys’ suitcases downstairs and Ali’s sisters’ suitcases upstairs sprawl open next to their beds, a semi-permanent closet for clothes and textbooks and necessary clutter from their dorm rooms. Semi-permanent, because nothing is fixed now. They attend a different college, one that just closed its campus. Those luggage bags make me pray hard. Not us next. Fingers crossed to hope.
“I wish they’d just make the announcement already,” Ali’s mother says. But while we wait for it to come – it may never come – we have a good time.
An atrocious substitute for soccer balls handled by even worse soccer players: Ali, the bassist, and I. Though supposedly kinesthetically able as dancers and a varsity tennis player, we keep stubbing our toes on the ball, kicking it across the road in zigzags into front lawns. The volume of traffic, thankfully, is conducive to our sportsmanship.
Property of the bassist;equipped with neon lights. On Saturday night we have a dance fest, Ali, her father, two sisters, sister’s friend, and I, to Spanish music, with the house lights down and the speakers flashing and vibrating so hard they fall off the platform. Stamping on the floor, heads thrown back, arms pulsing.
Another night we use them to blast songs from Newsies, which we re-enact – dramatic situation, songs word for word, bits of steps from “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know,” and “Seize the Day.” When the speakers’ batteries are dead, we five girls sing at a volume to rival them. “Stare down the odds and seize the day,” Ali’s sister belts. I join in, loading plates into the dishwasher. “Minute by minute, that’s how you win it – we will find a way.” Her voice lifts, harmonizing in a perfect fourth.
“We’re going tomorrow to pack up the rest of our stuff; anyone else need to go?” someone yells from the living room.”
“Courage cannot erase our fear,” we bellow. The dishwasher starts. “Courage is when we face our fear…” We overloaded it, as usual. It groans and churns in complaint.
Celebrating Ali and her twin’s birthday involves making a ham and cheese sandwich with elbows, noses, and feet; re-enacting “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” COVID-19 edition; running around the yard screaming “the virus is gonna get me”, and driving out for coffee with the cars’ windows painted with “COVID-19th birthday. Drive-thru only. Hand sanitizer on board.” One day someone leaves a voice message on the telephone: do you have guests over?
The best makeshift ballet barres around the house. Restless, Ali and I break out into passe and attitude balances by the windows, in front of the TV, holding on to walls, chairs, counters, each other, anything. Morning plies and tendus while waiting for our coffee. The prospect of dance classes through Zoom or Skype make us famished for dancing with another human being in the same room. My earphones keep falling out of my ears as I improvise to Leon Bridges’ album “Good Thing,” narrowly avoiding carpet burn, actually kicking a ceiling fan by accident. Sweep and spiral and curve under, arch over. Spin, leap, break, rise. Reach; lines of energy shoot through your veins. Breathe and shake the air. Eat up the space, carve it out with your arms, legs, head, back, feet, hands, shoulders. In times like this, what else can you do but keep moving?
One night the three boys decide to learn some ballet from us – two musicians, one mathematician. We can’t believe they’re serious. We teach them the five classical positions and plie, tendu, petit allegro, pirouette, grand jete. I remember leap-flying through the air into the living room to demonstrate the last. Class ended with one of them slipping on the wooden floor and collapsing into a puddle of hysterical laughter. I remember thinking that if my left hand wasn’t injured – it’d been over a year since I played strings – I’d ask to learn some bass.
From which I learn the chorus of BTS’ Idol. Staying indoors changes people in strange ways: a month before I had never watched a full K-Pop music video. I would not have dreamed of grooving to Blackpink’s Ddu-Du Ddu-Du in the car, much less learning a BTS dance off YouTube. Ali turns on Black Swan, and I’m riveted to the rhythm of their kicks and isolations, how they melt out of a moment and hit shapes of provocative stillness.
Ironically, online classes will solve two schedule conflicts, and New York’s lockdown reimbursed me of an expensive ticket I would have had to burn. What else is this but a blessing beyond measure? Sometimes, God’s mercy worries me—why wasn’t I born into a working class family in Wuhan who just cremated another family member and dug into their savings for the second time this month? Now I am not sure that my fortune — this—is God’s mercy. Maybe it is the result of mechanistic processes and the product of social structures. On Sunday, my cousin WhatsApp messages me, saying he likes to feel responsible for his life, not controlled; at any rate he doesn’t believe there can be any proof for God.
Just past noon, Ali’s father drives five of us out to receive the Eucharist at a house where the local bishop was giving it out. “Host to go,” my friend’s sister jokes. Standing on the steps of the driveway in the crisp air pierced by sun, we recite the Lord’s prayer. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” the bishop says as he places the round, flat wafer in my palm. It feels like a quarter dollar made of paper. To be honest, I go not because I yearn for the sacrament (to be extremely honest I forgot, in the span of a week, that Communion is Sunday ritual), but to see and feel church community in bits and pieces, in crumbs, now that services are cancelled. Later in the week, my cousin says he doesn’t think faith is a bad thing; it’s actually very necessary.
Though I feel tempted to hog this glorious mass of free time for reading, writing, or choreographing a solo, living with strangers who feel like not family but close prods me to revive WhatsApp conversations which have lain dormant for months. Are you “evicted”? Oh, thank goodness they’re letting you stay. Classes online? Me too. I have no idea how we’re going to do labs without being in a lab. I hope they’ll let us come back. And I have time to discuss the existence of god and reasons for morality with my cousin. Faith and belief does not eradicate uncertainty, I tell him. A faith with no room for doubt is too simplistic and reductionist to be worth believing in. I can’t answer all his questions – I don’t pretend to be able to. I ask more questions, questions I can’t answer.
Maybe typing isn’t that much easier than writing.
Accessible by climbing through the narrow bathroom window on the second floor. Seven of us lie on the sloping roof, half-listening to the math major explaining SI prefixes and what a yottameter is. “A yotta is the largest unit prefix in the metric system. It’s a factor of ten to the twenty-fourth power. Or a septillion. Think of something one-followed-by-twenty-four-zeroes meters long.” .We let that sink in. I know kilometers, but can’t picture anything a yottameter long. “It’s a crazy big number,” he said. The sun gives me clouds of red freckles on my cheekbones. We squint into the blinding brightness, baking our feet on rough tile. Five freshmen, two seniors. We don’t need sweaters; I haven’t felt warmth like this in months. This fails to unnerve me, I write.
About the Artist
Ashley Webster · Christian Brothers University
Ashley Webster is a mixed media artist who has an interest in printmaking and illustration, which allows her to create complex and detailed images. Her work often explores the relationships between people and nature. She is a passionate advocate for environmental education and tries to educate through her work.