We have been at home under lockdown for about two weeks now. The coronavirus arrived here a bit later than other countries, but it has made up for lost time. As of yesterday, the number of reported cases approached 4,000 fast, with about 100 deaths.
My wife has been on maternity leave since December, so being confined to the home is something she has grown used to. Her mother has been with us since the baby was born. It’s been the four of us (five, including the cat, Ginger, who has endured the crisis with admirable feline fortitude).
We live in a one bedroom apartment on the basement floor. Our only view of the world is from the terrace that looks out onto the garden and the other apartment buildings. Outside, the cats lounge in the grass or perch in the stark winter branches. Our small patch of sky is perpetually grey, streaked by passing gulls, who seem now and then to stop in midflight and look down on the world of man below and wonder where all the people have gone.
We don’t get out much, just once every two days or so, to pick up bread, milk, cigarettes and other bare necessities from the bakkal up the hill. Our neighborhood, Sultantepe (“Sultan Hill”) is conservative, so there aren’t many places to go anyway. Even the mosques are empty, as people have been told to avoid public gatherings. Most people are holed up in their bunkers, no doubt watching films like “Outbreak” without a trace of irony.
“It feels like we are living in a movie!” my wife says.
“I know, right? I was thinking the same thing! Some B movie about the apocalypse.”
Since my wife is busy with the baby, and her mother is over 65 (the government has ordered senior citizens to stay home), the task of going out is usually left to me. Not that I mind. As I said, it’s a small flat and I’ll take any excuse to get some fresh air.
Who would have thought a trip to the market could become such risky business? We go over all the precautions, which have taken on the aspect of ritual. Since we have been living in our pajamas day in and out, getting dressed into street clothes feels like putting on body armor, and the bottle of lemon cologne (alcohol-based, said to kill the virus) is inserted in the coat pocket like a secret weapon, ready to be whipped out the instant we might make contact with anything or anybody on the surface world. At last, the face mask is donned, and you feel like some kind of half-assed chemical warfare ninja.
The other morning I decided to go to a bakkal down the hill, just for a change. I walked along the coastal boulevard, looking out at the Bosphorus and the national palace, closed to tourists. The Bosphorus, usually busy with ferries and cargo ships, even warships, is nearly placid. Which makes me think for a second of the war in Syria. Hard to believe we don’t even think about that anymore. I wonder if the fighters are quarantining themselves. I would. What about the refugees. Wonder if they are wearing masks and gloves. Hell, they have enough problems, don’t you think. Nowadays, you don’t see or hear much about stuff like that. The news is all about coronavirus.
Walking. Normally the coastal boulevard is noisy, abuzz with buses, taxis and pedestrians rushing to get the ferries at Üsküdar. That morning, I encountered maybe three souls during the ten minute walk. But it feels good to be out of the house. Imagine having a city of 15 million people all to yourself.
At the market, there was only one other customer, a young man stocking up on his beer supply. With modulated paranoia that would have made Howard Hughes proud, we stepped around each other. We feinted, we dodged, we gave extra wide berth, eyeing each other as if either one of us could very well be the undead. Instead of people, we have all simply become potential virus carriers.
“Many customers?” I asked the proprietor, as he totaled up my groceries.
“Çok az,” he said. Very few.
Outside, I immediately took out the lemon cologne and gave my hands a good blast, spraying my face too. I might have even drunk some of it, for I remember the harsh bitter taste of it lingered in my mouth the whole way home. When life gives you lemons, drink cologne. Or, as James Dean famously observed, “The life you save could very well be mine!”
Back at the flat, my wife takes my coat along with the groceries and sets them out on the terrace, where they will be thoroughly cleaned and vetted. I am sent immediately to the shower.
I miss going to work, believe it or not.
I’m one of those people who needs the social contact and urgent atmosphere of work. And I like the university campus environment. The young students give energy and challenges.
My colleagues and I keep each other updated via What’sApp. We’re supposed to be giving online courses soon, so we are all feeling anxious, in the dark, as we await word about when the courses will start.
“But you get to spend more time with Leo!” they say.
Yes, Leo and I have gotten to spend a lot of time together. My repertoire is severely limited. He soon bores of my antics. My guitar, long consigned to a corner in the bedroom because of work, has gotten a lot of use. To his credit, Leo is already becoming a Beatles fan (He is rather fond of “Yellow Submarine” and stares at me rather curiously as I pick out the chords of “Octopus’s Garden”).
Overall, we have managed to endure our solitude somewhat pleasantly, and I have yet to show any signs of becoming the late Jack Torrance. It’s too early to tell. Perhaps my boy is psychic, and if so I’m sure he would let us know in advance should he be visited by visions of dead twins or waves of blood cascading in the garden outside.
Along with increased family time, there have been other upsides. I managed to complete the rough draft of a new novel, one that had been set aside for many months due to work and the baby. Depending on how much longer this crisis lasts, I may have it ready to publish very soon. With everyone else stuck at home, with a lot of time on their hands, I might even manage to sell a few copies. Is that monetizing a crisis? Nay, it is good old fashioned opportunism, friend! Good to see that not all of our humanity has vanished in these heavily sanitized times.
Of course, we do stop and wonder, now and again, about the unreality of our current reality. The other day, my wife was looking for something in a drawer and discovered a photo we had taken at our friend’s wedding in Switzerland this past summer. We are all standing together, in formal attire, with the majestic Swiss Alps in the background. Ah, the days when we used to go outside! When we wore other clothes besides the same old pajamas! Oh, that those halcyon days may return!
Meanwhile, in our solitude, we carry on. As I’m sure you are. Stay well, friends!
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.