(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
YOU MUST WEAR YOUR MASK!’ SAID THE ANGRY MAN. HE was standing exactly one metre from Franco, as mandated by the latest government decree.
‘But I don’t have one,’ Franco answered, as he tried to keep the dog under control. ‘Stay put, Rocco, wait!’ the boy said.
The guy didn’t budge and stared at him, blocking his way.
Franco was so happy that the downstairs neighbour had asked him to walk their old golden retriever. And twice a day. Because of the lockdown, the boy who had stolen Franco’s dog-walking job was now confined to his apartment across town. That meant €5 a walk or €10 a day for Franco, a sum that came in handy since his parents had stopped giving him an allowance, now that he had turned 16. He had to find ways to fund his weekends. Although no one had weekends anymore.
Since the average age of people dying had begun to lower, he had become more and more nervous about walking Rocco. When he did go out, he stayed away from people as much as possible. Mostly, during the first days of the epidemic, before it was upgraded to a pandemic, he had seen only homeless people on the streets. One of them looked like a cave man—he had rolled a chicken bone into his oily fringe. Another bum had yelled at Franco, out of the blue, from 100 metres across Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere:
‘Ciaooo! How are youuu?! All good?!’
Franco had screamed back: ‘I’m fine, thank you! How are you?’
Then a doctor from the shelter had tested positive and Franco started to keep even further away from the homeless. He used to dread going out, preferring to stay in his blue painted room playing videogames, just like all his friends. But during the first week he began to get restless and, now, he could hardly wait to take Rocco out. But… he was conflicted between needing some air and the fear of virus-carrying droplets sprayed in the air by asymptomatic carriers, the worst enemies.
The guy with the mask didn’t look like a bum. He was one of those fifty-something men who had slowly begun to come out in the open more often, with the excuse of buying cigarettes or medicines.
‘You must put your mask on!’ he insisted.
‘Look, I don’t even have a mask.’
‘You must wear a mask!’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t have one. Masks now cost €36. I don’t have €36 to spend on a mask you must change every eight hours, ok? But even if I did, there are no masks in the shops right now, don’t you know?’
‘You have to wear a mask!’ the man screamed.
Holding Rocco tightly on the leash, Franco looked at the man straight in the eyes and began to cough steadily towards him. Slowly, continuously. The man jumped back, nervously, yelling: ‘Hey, watch it!’ then turned around and walked away quickly.
The encounter had made Franco irritated, and tense. There was no law forcing people to wear masks. Besides, only the infected were supposed to wear them. There was so much confusing information swirling around. Some said wearing masks was worse, some swore that only sick people should wear them, others, like that guy, thought everyone should always wear one.
Life had changed overnight. No, that’s not true. Life had changed slowly. At first, no one believed it would reach Rome. People were forwarding WhatsApp jokes: ‘Can’t get a table at a crowded restaurant? We can rent you a Chinese with the cough so everybody will leave!’ said a Neapolitan voice in a recorded message, coughing.
When the virus started killing eight people a day in Lombardy, the same joke was used with people from Milan. When more than 300 people started dying every day, in all of Italy, no one, except the French, kept joking about it. They had made a video of an old Italian man sliding a pizza out of a brick oven and coughing a green pesto-like glob of saliva on it. The French ambassador had to be photographed eating pizza with the Italian foreign minister to calm the situation.
Nevertheless, they each kept a metre apart from the other. The Germans blocked the borders to keep their ventilators in and infected Italians out. Someone in England said the self-isolation was just a sorry excuse for those lazy Italians to stay home from work. Europe was crumbling.
When the French started dying, too, that stopped the jokes altogether.
Franco was still looking for masks for himself and his mother, but these had completely sold out within two days, across the entire country. The black market was filled with fakes or with masks otherwise used only for DIY and gardening—not for medical use. The Carabinieri arrested dozens of people peddling them at high prices. His mother had written to his father, who was stuck in quarantine in Qatar, where he had been on a business trip, to ask him to send some. None to be found there, either. Finally, Franco’s aunt in Los Angeles was able to send some, as the pandemic had yet to fully reach them.
There was so much confusing information swirling around. Some said wearing masks was worse, some swore that only sick people should wear them, others, like that guy, thought everyone should always wear one
The one positive thing out of all this, Franco thought, was that even though in the first week of lockdown his friends, his mother and the neighbours had started to become more nervous, like the man in the mask in Piazza San Callisto, by the third week people started to sing songs at the same time of day. At 6 PM, 8 PM and 10 PM, there would be these synchronic balcony and courtyard concerts all over Italy. Before, he’d rarely met the neighbours in the building across from his. He had seen them regularly and for years, of course. They were the familiar faces you sometimes say hello to, when your gazes lock and you’re too close to avoid them, but whose names you’d never know. Or care to know.
Now they were all singing the same songs, at the same times, every day. The balcony songs, they were called.
One evening, as he quietly sang and watched everyone else sing together, it seemed to him as if they had overcome the virus, rather than being afraid of catching one. What kind of virus had kept them away from all this, away from such communal joy, found simply by opening their windows and singing with those who had been strangers before? He knew they must have had a virus: the virus of ambition, of busy-ness, of the constant need for entertainment and the desire for useless things. Perhaps… It was just that… they somehow looked… healed, as if they finally had let go of something they did not need, something, or many things, that had been weighing them down.
A friend on Insta had asked: ‘How many of you are having nightmares every night? I keep dreaming of things falling out of my hands, of losing control of everything.’
Maybe it was that people were secretly relieved and glad of the chance to lose control, yet all the while balanced by tension, by the fear of dying.
Luca, a friend of his parents, had posted this: ‘We both have nightmares, every night, Sara and I, but when we wake up, we realise reality is worse.’
But was it? Yes, it was, yet something strange was happening to people, something good, despite the bad.
Franco felt stronger than the nightmares. He did pullups and pushups every morning and every afternoon. Online classes, which at first felt like a joke, became a moment to look forward to, a moment of connection. All those faces together on the screen… and, on the plus side, there was so much more time to play videogames online with his friends.
His father played the stock market and had told Franco, on a recent Skype chat from Doha, that he must think proactively, stay strong and positive. His father was like that, boringly encouraging, constantly, untiringly. Franco was fed up with all this encouragement, all the time.
‘You need even more strength than normal,’ his father insisted. ‘Think of how the world will change. Who will go down? But, also, who will benefit? There’s always someone benefitting. Which stocks would you bet on right now, for example? What is your intuition on this? You’ve always been good at it.’
Well, easy, he said, dump airlines and tourism. Buy cannabis and alcohol stocks. Companies making condoms and diapers. People will be having a lot more sex, that’s for sure. Not that Franco had any experience of it. Not yet, at least. He didn’t like to talk about that. He was waiting for the right person, although, now… But it made sense. People will want to celebrate and screw their way out of this. Like those singers on the balcony. Buy pharmaceuticals. Not just for vaccines. Once everyone is immunised that’s a lost bet. Nor for tests, it won’t play long unless you’re shorting it. But tranquilisers. The world was undergoing a massive trauma and would need to be sedated.
As usual, when he was talking to someone on Skype, instead of looking at the other person’s face, in this case his father’s, he was studying his own. He realised he was, again, adjusting obsessively his unruly head of hair. It was always too puffy. But he couldn’t cut it shorter because it would expose his forehead, which was objectively impressive. Franco also realised, studying himself on the screen while his father talked from a time zone where it was already dusk, that he still looked too much like Harry Potter. It had never been cute. He’d always hated that sanctimonious Harry Potter that everyone else seemed to love. Changing eyeglasses hadn’t help. When his father had taken him on a trip to Japan, that’s what everyone in the streets called him. ‘Haru Potteru!’ they would say, pointing at him.
When would they be able to take another trip like that? Would the world ever go back to that normal?
Franco had been surprised there hadn’t been more violence and anarchy, like in the dystopian movies they had watched gleefully over the last few years. How long would the balcony songs last? Two, three weeks, a month perhaps. Then? Would it turn ugly? What about spring, when the sun comes out? How would they keep people home, inside?
And what about all the frail people and those who were already slightly neurotic, like his mother, who was showing signs of more instability? Or his cousin, for example, who was convinced he had the virus? He had been to the ER so often that when he walked in, they would say: ‘Hey, there’s Sandro again!’
This happened before they closed ER to walk-ins like him. Sandro then started to check his temperature every two hours. But no fever. Yet he felt he had this weird pain in his chest. Franco explained via WhatsApp that these were not the right symptoms. Sounded more like panic attacks.
Then Franco lost his patience: ‘We’re all being asked to just take a fucking break, Sandro, how hard could that be? Just re-evaluate and rest. That’s all!’
As he said this, he wondered how true it was. Was that all? Of course not.
One afternoon, Franco’s mother, when they went out to shop for food with the proper printed permit, asked him if they could take a short walk by the river. She always walked briskly, as if chased by some invisible ghost. In public, she often keep a fixed grin, but you couldn’t see it now, as they were both wearing the black masks sent by Franco’s aunt. He had started to wear his all the time, his face disappearing under the cloud of hair, the big eyeglasses and the dark band across his chin. Sometimes, when he was alone in his room, he got so anxious that he put it on, even though there was no need, just to feel reassured and to calm his breathing down.
As they were walking along the Tiber, the sound of the waters below sounded crisper than usual, the smell of the fresh March air felt even fresher and, as he lowered the mask for an instant to breathe freely, the trees seemed to rejoice in the wind. The disappearance of the persistent flow of traffic that had flanked Rome’s ancient river made it all so quiet now.
His mother suddenly yanked his elbow and begged him to cross the street.
‘Quick, quick, quick!’
‘I’ve never told you this, but I’m terrified of… those…’ she pointed to a row of trees lining up on the side of the Lungotevere.
‘Yes. Sorry. I’ve had this fear since I was a child but… ’
They shuffled over to the other sidewalk, turned right at Piazza Trilussa, eerily devoid of its crowd of pot smokers, drunkards and musicians who cheered up the evenings. No more trattoria, their outdoor tables busy with customers sitting in front of deep dishes filled with linguine. Even the busy Piazza della Malva was empty and, most painful of all, now even the La Boccaccia white pizza-to-go counter had shut. This was one of the things that hurt the most, not having his daily focaccia-like delicacy on the way back from Virgilio High, just over the bridge.
The person who seemed least disturbed by all this was the one at higher risk—his 78-year-old grandmother who lived in a city up north, smack in the heart of the Red Zone. They Skyped every day after lunch, when she would be drinking her coffee on her sunlit balcony, laughing, in good spirits. She said she’d been used to self-isolation since her husband died 25 years ago. Nonna practised yoga, watched her TV soaps, re-read some classics and went for short walks with her neighbour (keeping a metre between themselves) and her little Boston terrier. ‘So far, so good,’ she would say.
BUT THEN HOSPITALS started filling up, crossing their capacity. ‘Patient number 1’, a 38-year-old semi-pro runner, was hospitalised without diagnosing the virus and hospitals in Lombardy were the first to register dozens of deaths among staff as well as patients. Doctors and nurses had to be tubed up to ventilators and took precedence over the elderly. It was just protocol. Unless of course the elderly were doctors or nurses. And even medical staff who had tested positive were called back to work, as long as they had less than 380C fever. They had to turn 10,000 young medical students into practising doctors, overnight. Then people in their sixties and fifties started to lose the privilege of using life-saving machines. As the numbers went up, the new death tally was announced every day at 6 PM—the exact time the chorus of national anthems could be heard from balconies.
How long would the balcony songs last? Two, three weeks, a month perhaps. Then? Would it turn ugly? What about spring, when the sun comes out? How would they keep people home, inside?
During the first week Franco kept playing football with his friends. Everyone was more edgy, and a good game helped shave away the tension. It was thought the virus was killing only older people. At least, that’s what younger people wanted to believe. Then someone said it won’t kill in hot weather. Then tropical countries proved also to be vulnerable, and then teenagers began to be hospitalised. Pneumonia, and… gone. And no more football games.
This is when Franco started to feel a little discomfort in his throat. First, he thought it was his ear. Just an infection returning from three months ago, when the doctor had prescribed antibiotic drops. He was not going to go paranoid like his cousin Sandro. He felt a nasty discomfort as he swallowed. The day after, a slight feeling of asphyxia. His forehead was hot. The new decree made it mandatory to report these symptoms to the emergency number. After two days with 37.5 fever, his mother dialled the number. She had chewed her lip over it but decided to go ahead after a sleepless night. This was a dangerous move. Franco knew of kids his age who had called the number, had gone in for a test and never came out. You couldn’t even have their ashes back. How could he tell if the feeling of shortness of breath was the virus or if it was just… panic?
He started to cry quietly in his room, with the door locked. He just wanted to be with his friends. This is what he missed the most. To be able to hang out, as he had done only a few weeks before. That’s all. If only everyone could sing together every day, but also still be able to see each other for a stroll or at Bar Settimiano, where everyone had known him since he was a child…
He was asked to go to a testing centre. Immediately. And told not to take anything special, to just show up, alone. It was nearby, in that hospital in Piazza San Cosimato where he played football with his friends, before Rome and every other city had turned into deserts and before every balcony sported a tricoloured Italian flag, in the largest show of patriotism since Fascism 100 years ago, and before the waters in the Venice canal looked clean and pristine, as all the world’s media reported, trying to find something positive to divulge. Everyone talked of Italian excellence yet Franco thought: If we’re so excellent, how come we have more dead people than all the other countries?
Franco pressed the buzzer of the small gate. A lady in full protective gear came out, opened it and led him to a large room filled with empty rows of beds where a few other patients were waiting. They were all keeping themselves at least one metre away from each other. When the nurse came back, she called out his name and took him to an examination room where they stuck a cotton swab up his nose.
‘It might feel like your eyes want to pop out,’ the nurse said, through her mask and goggles. ‘But be patient, it’ll only take five seconds, even though it’ll feel like an hour of torture.’
‘Be still, please… There, done… ’
Another nurse walked him back to the room, taking him through an enchanted cloister filled with olive and fir trees. This little Eden led to a wing of the building called ‘Malattie Infettive’. Once back in the large room, the nurse gave him two pills to swallow and a paper cup filled with water.
‘We should know the results in about 24 hours, if not sooner,’ she said.
‘OK. So, I have to come back tomorrow?’
‘No, no. You have to stay here with the others until we have the results.’
‘But… I don’t have anything to sleep in, toothbrush, nothing… ’
‘Someone can bring it in. You have a phone, right?’
An hour later, his mother arrived with his package—but she had to stay outside. She was not allowed to see him, not even through a window. Franco lay in bed trying not to think, or to cry again—he didn’t want to embarrass himself.
He felt someone standing close to his bed.
‘I told you,’ a voice, coming from about a meter away. ‘You should’ve worn a mask,’
He looked up. The eyes looked familiar. But he couldn’t tell who this person was. Perhaps a friend of his father, he thought, hinting a smile which died on his face as soon as he realised who it was. The angry guy, of course. He was also a patient there, waiting for results.
‘It doesn’t seem to have helped you much,’ Franco said, through his own black mask.
‘I only hope I haven’t caught it from you. If I did… ’
‘I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.’
Then the main lights went off. Franco checked his phone. It was already 10 PM. Yet how could anyone sleep at a moment like this? He certainly couldn’t, especially after that veiled threat. He could hear the others fidgeting, tossing and turning, all of them one metre—or more—apart.
At 11 the lights came back on, suddenly. Everyone’s eyes took a second to adjust as the main door opened and the female nurse walked in, followed by four muscled-up male nurses in protective gear.
‘We have the results,’ she said. ‘All the negatives can leave; all the positives have to follow me. Negatives, you’re asked to self-quarantine in your own rooms, if you have one at home, or, if you don’t, to stay at least one metre away from everyone else for another two weeks. If you have symptoms again, come back here for a second test.’
Then she called their names and ha-nded them a piece of paper. The man from Piazza San Callisto looked at the note, then immediately glanced at him. Franco clutched his paper but was afraid to look.