[FIRST PERSON] Slivers of life in a time of lockdown

Lawrence Bernabe
[FIRST PERSON] Slivers of life in a time of lockdown

Graphic by Nico Villarete

'First, the balm: music, movie marathons, the maniacal posting of outrage to timelines. Then sorrow, despair.'

When the lockdown was finally announced the evening of March 16, 2020, it should had been another graveyard shift for me. Our higher-ups had been sitting on when to release the laptops. The announcement caught them unawares.

My teammates from C., aka the competitor, lamented this at the meeting the previous Friday. Window blinds were down, blotting out the sight of a mall’s piazza meant to evoke Venice, whose fast food joints stayed open 24/7. The people at C. stayed home. 

Whatever management lacked in initiative, it tried to compensate with dispatch that night. Whoever was present got laptops, priority lists abandoned. A vehicular ban could last weeks. Shuttles would bring us home. The drivers split us: north to Bulacan, south to Manila, Cavite, points dotting the metro. 

I made it that night, ignoring the chatgroup. Almost there anyway, I thought, so I slept on. J., a teammate, heeded the cascading doomsday warnings and got out of her shuttle. Her father fetched her past midnight somewhere in Laguna.

The driver took me the long way home, his last drop-off. Looking back, the detour from North Harbor and the murky stop-and-go through Delpan, Sta. Cruz, España was worth it; last time to sit and stare out a vehicle for months. I asked where he was headed. Home was in Cavite, he said. 

On Facebook I watched the police barricade Ortigas, dividing Pasig from Antipolo. The first of many. 

Still to come: people made to scamper across a bridge before curfew. People detained and shot (the people detained-then-shot). Camouflage and checkpoints. 

The arbitrariness of what was allowed and not, where safety lay (a roof overhead) or dread (to die on the street). 

If nothing else, maybe the laptop saved my life.

“Maybe two months.” 

Was what I said, talking to Ms. E. Her shift ended midnight. E. was friends with G., mother of my partner’s boss in a university. G. joined E.’s shift but bailed the sixth month. My partner told me about his friend-slash-boss’s mother, but we never met. E. and I waited together for a ride. IT inspected our laptops, noted serial numbers, took our signatures. They would stay on site for the servers.

Someone usually radioed the vans. He’d probably gone home. We walked to the parking lot. I offered to help with E.’s roller bag, which had a retractable handle. I first misted my hands.

The alcohol I sprayed was from February. Isopropyl disappeared, so I got ethyl, the week a tourist was admitted to a hospital in San Lazaro. The lab results confirmed our worst fears.

The usual bevy of POGO faces disappeared from the mall that whole month.

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Hands clean, I adjusted my ear straps.  

The N95-level mask, ninja-black, was a last-minute purchase: Taal’s eruption capped our vacation. In Taipei, we bought an amount we thought enough for ourselves and my partner’s family in Bulacan. Ten packs, three masks each. Ashfall reached Clark, delaying our flight.  

The eruption broke the ref; a window I left open. I subsisted between 7-11 and eating out when the ECQ came but I had masks on the ready.

 On the MRT, a cough was reason enough to move, even mid-trip.

I was worried about our trip back in January.

New Year’s, stayover in Bulacan. I woke to snoring and tricycles. Start of a new decade. I Googled:

“What would the world be like in 2030”
“The world in 2030”
“Climate collapse”

A United Nations paper about the climate crisis. We weren’t moving fast enough to avert apocalypse. 

Also: a weblog. A suspected flu epidemic, Wuhan. 

The entry’s gone now, but I remember flying home worried, hoping we dodged it. Had it reached Clark? 

Early on, Taiwan saw it and mounted a coherent response. Nearby is a place coping competently with this pandemic. But chaos was coming, for us. 

Low-grade worries. When local transmission was confirmed: memories of open-mouthed coughers. Maybe I’d caught it? Illness in late January; at a book launch in Ermita, I could only mind my partner’s things as he hosted, went home right after. At an eatery: I wiped my table down. Three men twanged their Mandarin. Afterwards, was it sinat? Or it was the cold, maybe.

I remember when people lurched from worry to panic.

Maybe Ms. E. didn’t hear it. But meeting her worried eyes, I didn’t know what to say. Like, I might be wrong. Or entertain the possibility where things could go wrong, they would.

Months on, the cashiers will have ceased singing the theme song to Aladdin, the baritone neighbor inspired by Milan’s balconies will have fallen silent, and on days I got myself groceries or water, I would see pillows, cabinets, electric fans. Dormers left while seniors huddled, unmasked, at the lobby. Someone’s concentrator shrilled into the corridor.

Buying food was the highlight of the day. Groceries took hours. Life contracted into queues and staring at screens. 

First, the balm: music, movie marathons, the maniacal posting of outrage to timelines. 

Then sorrow, despair. 

If you lived through 2020, you might know a version of this story. 

In mine, I made tea. I nursed a pouch of fragrant guihua until October. Dried pellets bloomed. Re-steeping made more.

January 30. I bought a teapot. I was unmasked. The driver coughed. 

Okay ka lang?” Matter-of-fact, casual. Like he would be.

He said he was. I paid my fare, got off. The entrance was just there. I just had to dodge. 

It was all about the dodging. One masked up, shunned crowds, washed everything. Fear was a city’s name, then a ship’s, then the disbelief nothing was being done. Flights continued, cruises docked. Vacationers visited casinos, malls. Then, the shutting down. The shutting out. For months, fear alliterated: fomites. Hygiene theater’s excesses: death by sodium hypochlorite. Danger lingered in the air, like in 1918, a March 2020 study concluded. The WHO was slow, the ramblers bereft of expertise even more so. This is understatement. 

We wear a totem to corruption every day: the IATF-mandated face shield.

To dodge the bad decisions of others; it was not to be. 

I wake up, tongue tingling. It goes away, returns when I’ve been outside or gone long without sleep. 

A ritual of consistency: to always double-mask and alcohol at the door. 

Once broken: someone knocked. I opened. The neighbor quickly realized his mistake. Door closed, I felt like I caught a bug. This lasted a week.

My first shot ached. My second shot’s in 30 days; 14 more to make enough antibodies. To my mind, if my tongue clears, it’s confirmed. Saves the cost of an antigen test. No other symptoms, thankfully. I can smell the coffee just fine. 

I try counting my blessings, remembering past griefs survived. Turmeric tea, too, argued online to be helpful, or not. But a cup soothes my throat, loosens the knot of fear in my chest. 

But I’m ready.

I voted in 2019, stayed put. Barring any anomaly, I’m all set. If I live.

In 2022 I intend to vote out the murderers, the plunderers, the betrayers who failed us.

Let’s vote for everything we must do afterwards.

To the ones who went ahead


Lawrence Bernabe works in a BPO firm and is the author of a poetry chapbook, Transitoria. He is studying in the MFA Creative Writing program of De La Salle University Manila.