shelter in place



Saraí would not have remembered it was a Tuesday had it not been for the familiar ringtone on her phone. Yanneth’s radiant smile on her screen, which flashed weekly as the phone rang, pulled her out of a foggy daydream and she tapped the green circle.

“Hola, Yanneth?” she said.

“Abuelita,” replied Yanneth, “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” replied Saraí. “Just hanging out, resting. How are you girls and your Mami?”

“We’re doing fine,” said Yanneth. “I’m creating this new dance with my friends and we’re going to record ourselves doing it and do a group video. Maris is on the phone with her boyfriend all the time. Mami is going crazy trying to get her to do her homework.”

Saraí smiled. She knew children, and her own grandchildren sounded upbeat. This was a balm, a refuge, for her; childhood and youth could be laden with challenges, as she knew all too well. Rocío was a good mom, judging from how the kids turned out. This thought raised a familiar bad taste in her mouth, and she swept it out of her head, realizing her granddaughter was still talking.

“So do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you want to come?”

“Come where?”

“Come on, Abuelita, you weren’t listening! Come live with us for the shelter-in-place order!”

“Mi amor, I have my place right here at home. No need to worry.”

This was not entirely true. The experience of sitting at home doing nothing was new and unnerving. God knew she’d been through plenty, by herself, not much older than Maris and Yanneth, and then with Alejandro and of course with Chris, but the fear she had felt then was acute, an awakening. Even when she felt frozen, she would then be propelled to act. Doing, working, acting, that was how she took on fear—an unwelcome but familiar guest. This newcomer, though, was of an entirely different quality. It numbed, it made the limbs go heavy, it blurred the hours of the day into tedium, punctuated only by vivid dreams of things forgotten and uneasy, abrupt awakenings.

Her friend Maribel had said something interesting. She was talking to her cousin Josué, who got into all kinds of New Age babble, The Secret, Pay It Forward, that sort of thing. Amidst the stream of snake-oil virus cure posts and memes with angels on them, Maribel said, he had sent her this piece about how this crisis was an opportunity to move from “doing” to “being.” “Being” is for people to lazy to “do,” Saraí thought. But lately she wondered whether Josué was right after all. Because living in her head after so many years of work, work, work—with her own children, with the children of others—was quiet. And quiet was not a good thing. It made room for things to sneak in, things best left in the past where they belonged. Being bombarded with warnings about belonging to a “high-risk population” so shortly after her sixtieth birthday was also discomfiting. But mostly it was the shapeless fog that enveloped her days that made the experience so eerie.

“But Mami wants you to come,” pleaded Yanneth.

This was also unlikely. Rocío barely spoke to Saraí, partly because they were both so busy with their respective jobs, and partly because of the obvious. They would exchange a few words on the phone or a text once every couple of weeks, of course, and Yanneth always called on Tuesdays, serving as an intermediary of sorts, but it was not the kind of relationship that would make the prospect of living together in close quarters something to look forward to. “Are you sure?” asked Saraí.

She heard some commotion on the other side of the line. Rocío’s muffled voice saying, “why do I need to talk to her? You talk to her,” followed by Yanneth’s, “but she wants to talk to YOU.”

“Hi, Mamá,” said Rocío.

“Hola, Rocío,” replied Saraí. “How are you doing?”

“It’s okay,” sighed Rocío. “Work is hard. You would not believe the things I see every day.”

Tell me, Saraí pleaded in her heart. Like you used to tell me when you were little, running to me every time a schoolgirl intrigue, some boy drama, anything unmoored you. But Rocío moved on. “I know you must be bored stiff after getting fired from that job, and, with me working full time, I know the girls would love having you around.”

“I wasn’t fired,” corrected Saraí. “David got into preschool. I couldn’t be his nanny forever.”

“Whatever,” said Rocío, an expression she learned from the valley girl movies of her teenage years. “You can have Yanneth’s room; she’s going to room with Maris. It’ll work out just fine.”

Saraí thought about it. For the last three years, her day revolved around David. She showed up at his home at 8:00am, right on time every time, just as David’s mom left home dressed to the nines to go to her job. David was always thrilled to see her, his bright eyes sparkling and his smile broadening, toddling over to her and squealing: “Tía Sara! Tía Sara!” They would play at home for a while, eat the breakfast his mom left him, and then go to the playground, where David amazed Saraí by climbing higher and higher and daringly using the tall slide. Rocío and Chris were not like this when they were little, she would think, and then remember that Chris did find some derring-do, but that would be much later.

When David turned three, his mom started looking for preschools. Saraí knew her days with him were numbered and felt the familiar sadness at saying goodbye. She had worked with about fifteen families, all different, and every time she moved on, her profound love for the child stayed with her. Some of her former employers stayed in touch; the kids would be friendly, but generally moved on with their lives. It was only several years into her work as a nanny that she realized that her love for the child—whether reciprocated or not—was her gift to take along, to keep her smiling through the uncertainties of future employment and the adjustment to a new family and a new routine.

As it turned out, David was accepted to preschool in early March. Saraí stayed on to help with the transition; he had not yet made any friends at the new place and was wary of the teachers and the noise during outside playtime. The new teachers did not speak Spanish and Saraí, like David’s mom, was worried that he would forget their Spanish conversations. When the shelter-in-place order descended, Saraí had been out of work for two weeks and living off the severance payments from David’s family. She had not found a new family ahead of time, not for want of effort, and, even though the financial situation worried her, she was happy not to be beholden to new employers at a time like this.

Maribel and Saraí talked about domestic workers and nannies in Brazil who were forced to live with their employers in quarantine or lose their jobs. Maribel had heard that the first woman to die of the virus in Brazil was a domestic worker, whose white employer, just back from vacation, demanded that she return to work as usual and hid from her that she was experiencing symptoms. The boss recovered; the worker died. The heart had no room to contain all this suffering, and if she was going to, she had plenty of her own to conjure. She could not afford sinking into this malaise that was reaching its tentacles into her daily routine.

“Okay,” she said, “I can come.”

Saraí was a light traveler, and looking around her apartment she couldn’t think of anything she would want or need with her. Then she packed some toiletries and essentials in a bag and some indulgences she thought Rocío might not have: the little coffee machine she received as a gift in a few years ago from the parents of one of her charges, the nice tortilla press, her favorite house slippers. Just about to step out of the house, she realized that public transportation might not run as frequently as she was used to.

She pulled out her phone. Maris had taught her to look up Muni times. NextMuni was working and reporting a bus arriving in ten minutes. Saraí stayed at home until the last possible minute, then headed to the station.

Boarding the bus alarmed her. She was used to drivers wearing masks on occasion, but the emptiness of the bus and the driver’s surprise at seeing her were unusual. She sat in the middle, alone, gazing at the vacant seats around her and at the boarded windows facing the street. Her daily commute to David’s house offered her a daily spectacle of the tragicomedy of San Francisco: people making speeches, chatting, bickering on board. Now, the recorded voice announcing the stations rang tinny and awkward in the empty bus, a ghost ship.

Saraí got off the bus a block away from Rocío’s house. Her heart was still pounding from the ride. She was relieved to feel her feet on the ground, even though the hollow sound of her soles on the pavement disoriented her. She took a breath, stepped up to the landing, and rang the doorbell with her elbow.

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