The debates began online, where they continue. My friend Todd, an adjunct English professor in Maine, commented on his Facebook page that the new virus didn’t seem to be any different than the old strains of influenzas that sweep through New England annually. It was late in the day, and I was worn out. Work at the American College of Sofia, in Bulgaria’s capital, where I’ve been living with my wife since last August, had stretched into evening, and I’d eventually slogged home through the slush and swapped my work desktop for my MacBook and a Stolichno Bock beer. I read Todd’s comment then glanced above the screen, out through the glass window and door of our balcony, to see the lights over the ski runs on the high ridges of Vitosha Mountain.
Our daughter was still in New Haven, while our friends at our last school in Rome were still blithely teaching, oblivious to the plague that was already spreading in the north. I’d been reading about the virus in Wuhan and listening to information about it on the British, French, German, Qatari, and American news channels that were part of our cable package; so I wrote to Todd to share the report that 15 percent of the new virus’ victims in China appeared to wind up in the hospital with a virulent pneumonia. “That doesn’t sound like a typical flu,” I wrote, but I wasn’t super concerned. A few minutes later, my wife and I reserved a Spark electric car and used it to drive up the snowy mountain roads for an evening of skiing under the lights.
The Bulgarian government closed the schools the next week. They’d already closed them for a week in January for the annual “flu vacation,” but now they surprised us with a second closure. They blamed it on an outbreak of Type B influenza, but by then, we were all more nervous about COVID-19. As the dean of students at the American College of Sofia, I released my assistants and worked on through the break. But the daily rush was reduced to a trickle, and I had time to exchange e-mails with my Tangier publisher about her progress editing my memoir about my time in the city with Paul Bowles. I also exchanged a couple e-mails with the magazine editor in New York City who was guiding my article about Bulgarian writers toward publication. The coronavirus was an increasing concern, but it had yet to become an informational black hole, sucking more and more of my attention into its maw.
My school stayed closed. The Bulgarian government wisely extended the flu-cation, then extended it again. My friends in Rome were quarantined and began posting photos taken from their windows, from their rooftops. My brother in Paris, the banker, shared a snapshot of his work computers crowding his mahogany dining room table in his apartment in the 16th arrondissement.
On the Ides of March it snowed all day, dropping a glorious powder across the heart of Bulgaria. I trudged to the college through the snow-covered sidewalks of our postcommunist city where services like snow collection are underfunded and neglected. High above me, the mountain ski runs gleamed bright with fresh snow, but the creaky lifts were closed for social distancing. In the evening, the ridges were dark, an empty weight of shadows in the waxen winter sky.
The international mechanisms that sustain my family’s global lifestyle, which had made it so simple for me to teach in Bulgaria and fly to my brother’s place in Paris for Christmas or my cousin’s place in Tunis for Thanksgiving or to host my friends from Barcelona or Barlieu, began to be snuffed out by the virus.
A Bulgarian colleague translated a news report for me that said the government might shut down the airport. International flights were already being canceled. It was spring break in New Haven and our daughter had driven to Canada with some friends. Yale was contemplating shutting down for good. Our nervousness became worry, which became concern then edged toward panic. In the course of three hours on a Saturday, we found her a flight, bought her a ticket, and asked sympathetic friends to drive her to Toronto.
I loaded a flight-tracking app on my phone, and we watched her digital plane cross the Atlantic, layover in Brussels and, finally, land in Sofia. Visitors were no longer permitted in the terminal. We huddled in our Hyundai electric car and texted her. They weren’t letting her flight disembark. Surely, they wouldn’t send her back to the States. Minutes became an hour then an hour and a half, until they finally opened the doors and began to process them, taking their temperatures, asking where they had come from. The government required her to quarantine in our apartment for fourteen days—but she was with us, in the relative safety of the bedroom we’d decorated for her visits.
News of the sick began to arrive via social media. In New York City my friend Wendy, the dance choreographer who worked for the public schools, had it. Her saxophonist husband had it too, and so did their spritely eleven-year-old daughter. On a Zoom call, Wendy looked tired with puffy eyes and frizzy hair, but she could laugh. She was working out of their apartment in Brooklyn, teaching online, despite the fever and the cough,
News of the dead was more concerning, and for the first time the black hole of the disease exerted a physical pull, and I began to feel my orbit wobbling. Pauline from college, who’d inherited her father’s travel guide empire, reported on her Facebook page that her upstairs neighbor in Manhattan had died before the paramedics could reach him. He was sixty-five.
Then Willie had it. His mom posted on his Facebook page so his friends would know that he was in the ICU. He was fighting the virus on a ventilator, but his fever had broken. His kidneys were failing; they were giving him dialysis. His friends posted praying emojis. I posted praying emojis. For five days it went on, and then he was gone. Willie’s obituary came in a group e-mail shared by college friends. We told stories, blocks of text in between indented forwarded messages. We were shocked that the likable, soft-humored old friend was gone, shocked by our own mortality, as I suppose everybody is eventually. His kids, both teenagers, didn’t care about our search for meaning, they just missed their dad.
Todd, who’d once doubted the severity of the coming virus, informed me in a Facebook Messenger text that our high school friend’s father-in-law was in an ICU, “one of fourteen cases in his county in Maine.”
I’d long before talked, via WhatsApp, with my mom on Martha’s Vineyard and convinced her to stop her work as a home health aid. She was in her seventies but looked fifty-eight and acted, as always, twenty-eight. The iPhone screen magnified her wrinkles in a way that annoyed the hell out of her, but there she was, sheltering in her living room in Oak Bluffs. My dad was buttoned up in his home in Florida. He reported in a WhatsApp chat—keeping the video off—that one of his friends from Massachusetts had the virus, but “he seems to be getting better.”
Online and in the news broadcasts, the debates continued. My brother Sam, who must keep working his factory job in Borne, Massachusetts, in order to pay his bills and eat, insists on posting pro-Trump news stories on Facebook and e-mailing them to me via our family chat groups. The stories he forwards claim the virus is all a hoax, or that it is part of a plot by the Chinese government. Sam claims the president is a genius who will save us all.
Intelligently worded news articles in places like the New York Times are only marginally more reassuring. Nobody seems to know the truth. Are we desperate for ventilators or are they just a slow death sentence? Is the virus awaiting us all, insistent that the only way out is herd immunity, or should we stay hidden away behind our Frank Booth masks and latex gloves? Have we stumbled into a dystopic Zombie movie without Bill Murray there to remind us to laugh, or are we slowly transitioning toward normalcy and one morning we’ll wake and wonder what all the fuss was about?
In my dean’s office in my empty school on my empty campus in my abnormally quiet post-Communist capital, I sit in my chair, face my computer’s camera and begin my daily parade of Zoom and Google Meets conferences. I’ve learned to set the apps on split screen, so I can see everybody, but then I tend to stare at myself more than the others. Am I the only one who does this? There I am in the corner, bald and going balder, with glasses no less…this human I’ve become.
The death count is still low in Bulgaria, but this is a poor country and there is growing pressure on the government to let the shopkeepers open their stores, to let the people mingle again so they can spend and earn. We’ve escaped the worst of it so far, but what will happen if the next wave rises higher than the first? When I was a kid on the Marblehead beach, in a wetsuit on a surfboard after a winter storm, my toes going numb as I paddled around with the swells coming in over the reef by the Neck, watching for the next break—back then I knew the second wave in the swell was higher than the first. I’d jump on the first only to have it mush out, and as I sank back down in the icy gray water, a nimble guy from California in his iridescent gear would skim past me balanced between gravity and the power of the sea.
Already the stray dogs that used to occasionally trot across my campus from the abandoned parkland to our west have become a pack of eight; eight quiet canines who pass me in the street in the twilight as I walk home after work. Eight quiet canines—sounds like a line from a nursery rhyme, a line from the old Europe of Falstaffian scoundrels, internecine wars, and plagues. The dogs are clearly hungry and scavenging, but not yet desperate. Not yet, but getting there.
I write my editor at the magazine in New York, eager to do what I can to maintain my civil compact with the world, to prop up this web of connectedness that has preserved my global life, suddenly nervous that the fragility that was there all along, all those delicate invisible forces that kept my plane aloft and my computer screen lit, are being challenged by the drifting shapes and empty eyes of those feral dogs padding past me in the encroaching dark. My editor writes back and explains that they’re publishing postcards from the pandemic. I read a few from the other contributors, and they warm me. I’ve always loved postcards, I tell him. When I was first traveling, before we had mobile phones or the internet, postcards were little lifelines.
It’s late at night, nearing midnight in Sofia, and I’m determined to be in my office at the abandoned school by nine tomorrow, but I refill my glass beside my MacBook. Out beyond the apartment window, the mountain is a dark emptiness that fills the sky. I get to work.
Stephen Morison Jr. is an American writer living in Bulgaria, where he is the Dean of Students of the American College of Sofia. His writings have appeared in the Sigh Press, Hippocampus Magazine, Antigonish Review, South Carolina Review, and other magazines. He is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. His recollections of his meetings with Paul Bowles in Tangier, titled Talking With Paul, will be published by Khbar Bladna in Tangier in June.