In quarantine in South Beach, Miami, a writer looks to literature—and bees—while contemplating the global pandemic.
I put a spoon of honey on the window.
I’m staring at it, really staring at it for a long time: the drop of honey softly settling in the hollow of the spoon, a glacier in slow motion, an amber developing into a seditious gold.
I can’t say how long it has been for me, but I’m sure it’s almost more than half an hour.
The image of honey covering the shimmering metal looks like one of those photos we manipulate in 3D.
I’m on my knees facing the window. The morning light is a soft, noble, whitish light, that of Miami Beach in springtime. Air that comes in from the beach is a refreshing lick. If someone were to come into my room, I’m sure he’d think I’m a monk practicing a ritual or a lunatic desperately trying to establish a third-kind encounter.
But no one’s coming in. I’m in self-quarantine. Not even Hamlet’s father’s ghost is lonelier than me right now.
Realizing this gets me out of my deep thoughts. A flash deep within my skin, a vase that falls from nowhere bound to crash nowhere, inside me. That’s what I think.
I stretch out a bit: I now know why the spoon of honey . . .
Ten Days Ago
(This isn’t Byzantium)
I devoured a loaf of hard bread. I think of the bread prisoners of war eat, bread that has been saved for days. I try to soften it by putting some honey on top. I ate the bread, but I forgot to put away the spoon from the window.
Time, that endless and capricious thing, does not exist in confinement. Or maybe it does exist, but it tends to distort itself so much that it’s now a time without boundaries; I can’t picture it as a mere accumulation of hours. I can’t run through it without getting bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.
There’s a moment I simply don’t know how late is the evening or how night is the night. I grab the phone to find out. I look out, outside my window, to see the brushes of light reigning over the neighborhood, the close balconies, the cars parked in the streets, to have an idea of what time it could be.
Reality is a cognitive construction, a fine silky warp, changing and changeable: one unexpected event and it interrupts the promised happy ending, a pyramidal structure that will crumble down if one brick is extracted from it. Thanks to our phones or TVs, we could easily point to those disasters that happened in the past: Notre-Dame Cathedral burning, Chernobyl exploding, or a devastating earthquake in Haiti. This Covid-19 (it sounds like a bad guy from a science fiction movie) has such a massive omnipresence—one can only remember its origin—it leaves us almost without tools to say where it is now. But it’s actually easy: it’s everywhere. You open the door and Evil is out there, waiting. You close the door and evil is inside, drinking wine from your cup, reading the novel you left pending, with your clothes on, shaving his face in your mirror, making love to your girlfriend or boyfriend, playing The Seventh Seal’s chess without inviting you, listening to some of John Coltrane’s solos, smoking cigarettes, zapping through your TV screen to watch the news, or even kissing you right on the lips. Evil even has a birthday: November, 17, 2019. After this day, Evil has a disdainful age; he’s the new Proteus fleeing from a bat to a pangolin and from a pangolin to any human being he encounters.
I like this sudden comeback to the Middles Ages, another back to the past, even though I myself feel deprived of my routine. I’m sort of feeling more connected to my neighborhood, and when I say neighborhood I mean city, I mean country, I mean universe. I’m in a voluntary quarantine to later move to another quarantine in my mother’s house. She lives alone. I can’t go to her without first and foremost making sure that I am not a colony of evil.
I’m planning to stay with her for as long as I can. Never before had I been so alert to my body signals. This also has to be a country for old men, dear W. B. Yeats. We have to complete a circle of life. We should take care of our parents and grandparents as they once took care of us when we were children.
My house is the only space in which I exist. From here I look at everything, inside and outside. I’m an inexperienced voyeur, a work in progress; my vision sharpens, adjusting to the new shades of light, deciphering the new way of the things I’ve been surrounded by.
I want to understand what thing time is once it’s removed from us. Confinement prompts me to figure out that succession of hours I cling to, just like the prisoner clings to that notion of time between meals, flashes of nature or false lights, showers and punishments. Day and night would be an extricable amalgam if it were not by those “routine” events that give Time a structure. Time is a dictatorship, the best of calumnies, I write somewhere. We’re not allowed to do anything that’s not subdued to Time. We constantly look for events that decapitate our routines, events that give it a memorable mark. The infallible script is crafted by Time. Just like the prisoner, I live in the things that confirm that I am a human being in this world, in that tale that someone—perhaps an idiot—tells, signifying nothing.
Nine Days Ago
I’ve been whining way too much about the possibility of having an entire month of complete solitude to finish writing the last chapter of Breakfast in the Snow, a novel I have been struggling with for almost three years. A whole month. I ask no more. Almost thirty days of titanic devotion to the white page. No vacations, no trips, no theaters, no reading other writers’ books, no cafés, no movies with friends, no strolls by the beach, no frisbee games, no Ocean Drive pedaling, no glorious happy hours, no bars, no parties, no sex, no orgies, no love. Solitude as if it were a monk’s cell. An entire month to accomplish a craving: to have a breakfast in the snow.
Eight Days Ago
I remember the plot easily: the characters are still alive for me. Emma, a smart woman, a model mother, drives a blue Chevrolet by Jefferson Street. Without air-conditioning, the car is an oven on wheels, with temperatures rising over one hundred degrees. There’s a stroller with a six-month-old baby girl tied to the backseat; she’s dressed with an old gold-colored blouse.
My unlikely future reader will not know (he can’t possibly know) that Emma is fleeing from her husband while suffering from postpartum depression. Just at the interception of Jefferson Street and North 15th Street, she stops the car, rolls up the windows, and then walks out to the US Bank ATM machine without looking back to the car. I see her walking with beauty, as if she were going out to buy flowers, like Clarissa Dalloway. When she gets her cash, she leaves her car keys on the ATM; the car keys, reminiscent of petrified honey over a shimmering metal surface. She never returns to the car.
Seven Days Ago
I did not write anything yesterday. The story was left unfinished, like those landscapes that travel with us before entering a long and dark tunnel.
I walk around my room, a kind of hexagonal large attic with orange painted walls and a fireplace right in the center. A total magic realism if we consider that I live in Miami Beach, overflowing in light and heat.
The things that surround me remain in that uncanny universe Silence creates. Confinement—alas! It has more sound and less fury—helps me to look and hear better: the small figure of the Little Prince, some swords with Celtic engravings, the imitation of a Baghdad lamp hanging from the same chain I use for turning the light on and off. Perhaps they all have a new meaning now, or perhaps they’re hiding something. Some are birthday presents, some Christmas gifts. I’m almost certain they have another symbology not yet discovered. And near these things, like guardians, there are the books I have already read and those that are still pending being read; some are written by fellow friends.
Hilary Vaughn Dobel
Wagner would have done another modern Tannhäuser with all this.
It’s hard not to give up on my novel. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I . . . In cowslip’s bell I lie,” Arundhati Roy reminds me from The God of Small Things.
Somehow I remember the heat, the hot temperature rising up, and a six-month-old baby girl. I suddenly smack the air to scare off the imaginary bee flying over my forehead.
Six Days Ago
I put the same spoon with more honey on the window. When I tried to remove the spoon yesterday, there was a bee flying over it. It could have been the same bee, I thought. There’s an Einstein quote—even though everyone agrees it’s apocryphal—which states that the human race will disappear four years after the last bee dies.
Once in the air, a bee is an extension of the honey in flight. I stare at mine; its beauty is almost challenging, an aerial ballet of a mad Giselle. I know she’s tracked that bit of honey I’ve left in the spoon. That skill she uses to insist on the only thing that gives meaning to her life is a virtue in the bee world but a nebula in ours.
I read somewhere that bees can remember, that the functioning of their brains is almost like ours, allowing bees to recognize faces. I come closer to the window (I am, of course, keeping my social distancing), wondering how I would be seen without presentable clothes and certainly without having shaved whatsoever.
Her wings move rapidly in her striped body, a total mystery for aerodynamics: no bee should fly with such corporeal dimensions.
I know the worker honey bees have a life span that lasts forty-five days, which is more or less what quarantine lasts. Isn’t it ironic that they have to face the same perils we face, an invasion of virus and pesticides, the majority created or provoked by humans?
Without bees there is no pollination, without pollination there are no seeds, without seeds there are no plants, and without plants, there is no life.
In those four years we have left after the very last bee has died, we would have to struggle to survive using that instinct advised by Dostoevsky’s narrator in The Brothers Karamazov: “weeds, insects, ants, the golden bee, they all know their way in life with such a marvelous certainty, by instinct.”
David Hackenberg was the first who sounded the alarm: thousands of bees were disappearing mysteriously. But what happened to Hackenberg was the same thing that happened to doctor Li Wenliang when he sounded the alert about the first coronavirus cases: his words fell on deaf ears. We all know now that bees contaminated by pesticides or by the Nosema ceranae virus, a virus originating in Asia, suffer from nervous system damage, and, as a result, they go astray and die.
When I read the masterpiece of a book that is Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, I was puzzled to find out that bees were among the first ones to understand that the end of the world was near. A survivor of the radiation remembers that even before any radio or TV announcement, bees were reluctant to abandon their beehives, that not one single bee ventured out for food, thus rejecting the possibility of feeding from a radioactive flower.
Five Days Ago
I was blissfully working on Breakfast in the Snow, but I’ve lost that rush again. I would love to have written it the same way Marguerite Duras wrote The Ravishing of Lol Stein. Perhaps it’s crazy to write about snow while it’s spring in Miami; perhaps it’s just that I’m enjoying this imposed solitude, that between writing about others’ solitude I prefer listening to the inner bell tolls of my own solitude, speaking inside me, deaf, lonely, like a fading buzzing.
I still walk around my room, a room of my own, a room with a view.
The Miami Book Fair asked me to do a live fifteen-minute reading. I’m choosing from the books I’ve published which poems will be best for a virtual reading in times like these, but this isn’t as easy as it sounds. From my window I see my neighbor’s window. Last year, she had a guy living with her. First there came the yelling and constant fights, then the beatings, then the bruises on her neck.
I saw her once walking her dog out on the sidewalk. I saw the bruises on her arms. We both had the accomplice’s silent cowardice.
She does not know it, but she probably owes her life to an undocumented Argentine who lived in my building and dialed 911 when he saw the guy’s hands squeezing her neck one night.
Dude, I saved her with my 911 call, I swear, he said to me, days later.
It’s been a year since that call.
I return to my novel. I make a surprising move forward on my last chapter. At times, I take quick breaks from the plot to wander off: those living this confinement without family or government assistance, unemployed, or undocumented, how are they getting by? And those who live in the same house with the oppressor, how do they survive?
Four Days Ago
(The kindness of strangers)
Maybe we’ve forgotten that everything that’s happening right now has already happened, more or less, in London in 1906 or Florence in 1348 or in any other city or year in the past.
Without memory we lose Time, and when that happens we only have left an uncertain Present Time with no columns and no mirrors to multiply or cling itself to, an endless nightmare in which we’re all screaming, making phone calls, playing the game of life as Present erases us, minute after minute, constantly. We are what we remember.
Without making any fatal comparisons, let’s not forget that Shakespeare suffered a similar blight yet somehow managed to write three of his greatest plays during quarantine: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.
I know I’m not Shakespeare; no one is Shakespeare, not even Shakespeare.
My reading starts at five o’clock from the Miami Book Fair’s Facebook profile, but those tuning in are watching me read from the orange hexagon where I live in Miami Beach. Virtually is Present time’s branch subsidiary, a miracle right now. My cell phone turns into that Borgesian Aleph, the point in space that contains all points: both my sister and my niece in northern Italy, friends in Madrid, friends in Mexico, friends here in Miami.
Future Time didn’t reach us, as I thought once when the virus began. It was Past Time—which is a plagiarism of Future—that reached us instead.
In that future, there lived those writers who have already written books about viruses and pandemics with characters getting sick like we are, washing their hands like we are, covering their mouths and noses with masks, characters adapting to a new life, surviving it.
The future that’s already happened contains some of these names: Asimov, Bradbury, Dick, Le Guin, Brian W. Aldiss, Stanisław Lem, people who wrote stories that should now be labeled as realistic books (some should now be treated like novels of manners), and anyone writing today another Madame Bovary or The Great Gatsby—with all those build-ups of people and hugs and kisses and parties with no social distancing—are bound to write the new futuristic dystopian novel of the past.
The first poem I read on the Facebook event is a poem I wrote under the influence of Blanche DuBois’s character. The final line reminds us how we’ve always lived depending on the kindness of strangers.
When the reading is over, I put more honey in the spoon. I am as strange to the insect as he is to me.
Three Days Ago
I wander around my room like in any city. I try to move as slowly as I can, enjoying both time and spaces. I’m obeying a dazzling religiosity of incredible routes: bed, bathroom, kitchen, bed. I have either a book or my phone with me most of the time. I talk to friends in Madrid and New York as I enter the kitchen; I see their bookshelves: clothes hanging, windows exploding in light, natural plants, plastic plants. I return to bed watching a video I recorded in Cinque Terre last summer. (The video is now a small portion of time trapped in a cell phone). From a high balcony an Italian woman is shaking a tablecloth. I see everything from my passerby’s point of view.
I go from the bed to the rear window. Poet and writer John Freeman posts a picture on his Instagram stories. It’s a picture of an empty New York City. Not even a dog is crossing the street. The unbearable weight of solitude, I think. Quarantine has turned us into cavemen with Wi-Fi and iPhones. To venture out today is the same as venturing out of a cave centuries ago: beware of the bear’s claws, the snake’s bite, the lighting of a god, or a virus. From the window I go to the bathroom. There’s a photo pinned to the door; it’s the photo in which I got naked for Spencer Tunick among hundreds of people at the Sagamore Hotel: we’re all naked, so tight, so close, a succulent buffet for a starving virus today. The water running on me makes me recall a rainy night I lived in Istanbul: the houses were gleaming under the rain; the brightness sipping out of house cracks turned into a liquid brightness, dripping down the sparkling threshold of the doors; the streetlights multiplying in puddles, estuaries of golden water.
The water that runs persistently over me is almost the same Istanbul water: they both cleanse my body of a contagious evil, an invisible virus, the patina of love.
For Baudelaire, a flâneur must experience that immeasurable bliss once he establishes himself among the center of a crowd. My current bliss is a suspicious one. I prefer Balzac’s description: flânerie is gastronomy of the eyes.
Sleep’s conquering me in my bed, but I keep wandering around imaginary streets. I improvise the cartography of dreams. I’m a virtual flâneur. My room is a miniature city.
In 2006 Hackenberg spoke of beehives with no bees, like ghost cities, he said. A beehive has an approximate population of 90,000 bees. The population of all Miami Beach is 91,178. In The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa charges against that unconscious human being, far more inferior to the bee, who has not yet learned to organize himself as a part of society.
Today, Miami Beach is a ghost city, an abandoned theater. Pesticides are weakening bees so much that it only takes a mite like the Varroa destructor to wipe out a whole community, leaving the bees defenseless for other lethal viruses to come in. Bees that go out to collect food, pollen, and nectar sometimes come back infected with these viruses. I soon have to go to a nearby Publix or Whole Foods. I’ll be taking the same risk they’re taking.
April is still the cruelest month.
We’re a poem writing itself.
None-sense runs through the pandemic like gossip runs though the royal courts.
The president of the United States says the virus is the new hoax, ignoring all the alarms just like China ignored Doctor Li Wenliang’s first alarms.
We’re living in decimated honeycombs; we’re walking empty cities.
I put a spoon with honey on the window, but after researching a bit more about the feeding of bees, I realize that it’s actually healthier to substitute glucose syrup, which is, the same to say, water with sugar.
South Beach, Miami
Originally published in World Literature Today Vol. 94 No. 3, Summer 2020