“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Austin, Texas” by Laura Jones

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All around the world, people are sheltering in place, but I’m living on my porch. Nine days ago just as the virus was raising its deadly head in Seattle and San Francisco and New York, my roof leaked into my house. Panicked about mold because my thirteen-year-old autistic daughter has a history of chronic lung disease and asthma, I quickly had a crew out to fix it. The chemical Killz was applied, the ceiling “re-texturized” and painted, all of which resulted in a chemical storm that blew up like Chernobyl inside me. My brain swelled inside my head. I could no longer lay down, just keep moving. Limbs and heart tingled and thumped, and I when I finally did sit, I couldn’t sleep, only chant the mantra “Nam myoho renge kyo” in my heart until slowly I felt my head drain, and the urge to quickly end my life drain as well. The chemical reaction I experienced made it impossible for me to live in my house.

Or, as I soon discovered when I ran to a rental, any house. Nothing was safe.

I have multiple chemical sensitivities and both an old untreated case of Lyme’s and a brand new one acquired while hiking the Acadia National Forest in Maine. Couches and beds and cheap Target armoires have put me into a biological meltdown: nerves jangle and shake, I grow slow and tired, or anxious and depressed, my heart pounds out of my chest, and I get sicker and sicker until the offending object is removed. Only now that object is the entire indoor world. If I go inside anywhere for even a few minutes, I sicken. Only the fresh air and open space outside—no matter how cold or wind-swept or choked with pollen—makes my body feel at peace.

All of this seems somewhat small in comparison to a worldwide pandemic, but it begs the question: How does one “shelter in place” when one has limited shelter?

I don’t presume to suggest I understand the experience of a homeless person. I’m living on a concrete porch with a roof, open on two sides. I’m also fortunate that while I live in Austin, Texas where it is often relentlessly hot, thankfully right now, it is spring.

But there are real difficulties, too. Sometimes rain falls close to my makeshift bed. Last night there was a vicious windstorm, and tomorrow there’s a possible tornado. When I drive my car—which is increasingly difficult as it also causes my cells to swell and thicken like they’re clogged with debris—I find myself scanning buildings and parks for emergency shelter or places to sleep if the rain becomes torrential or lightening strikes too close to my enclosure. I know no matter what I can’t get up and walk three feet inside. But the CDC advises not going outside either.

It’s spring, as I said, and the birds are endlessly singing. The animals have no idea about our current human drama.

My daughter and her father are able to live in our house. They don’t have the same condition and to them, the house is mostly the same. He comes in and out to bring me food or coffee or the medicines I need. He takes care of her throughout the night, while I sneak in small visits with her on the porch—one or two hours at a time—during the day. I worry most for her if suddenly her father should get ill. Should she need me to give her full time care, I wouldn’t be able to cross the threshold.

I’ve reflected too, on the distances I’ve laid between myself and family members who might lend a hand. Family like my sister in Florida or good friends in Chicago or Milwaukee that I now couldn’t get to in an emergency, who I realize should be closer. I should be closer. In this time of social distancing, I’ve learned that. No person, no family, is an island. We need each other. Proximity, while contagious, is ultimately a gift.

laura jonesLaura Jones is the editorial consultant for Mondo and writes for The Austin Chronicle. She’s been featured in two anthologies, including They Said, edited by the poet Simone Muench. An excerpt of Jones’ graphic memoir, My Life in Movies, was published last spring in Fourth Genre, along with a companion essay commissioned by the journal. Her work has also appeared in numerous literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, Foglifter, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The Drum, and Wraparound South, to name a few. Jones earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Northwestern University, where she was a 2015 AWP Intro Journals Project winner.