Time had stopped but new wrinkles swallowed Norma’s face. In the back of the kitchen cabinet, she found a lemonade pitcher she received many years ago.
The world had come to a standstill. Fear and death lurked in everywhere forcing peoples to hunker down and shun visitors. Nevertheless, acceptance and peace washed over Norma. She took advantage of the unexpected slow down and revisited old memories through pictures and writings. She thanked and discarded clothes, and eliminated unused items. A decluttered home surely would attract auspicious energy.
She washed the dusty pitcher and filled with homemade iced tea. It gleamed.
Emma heard the thud, like a gob of silly putty had been dropped. Then she felt it. The silly putty fell onto her left foot. It rolled off. The silly putty that is, except that somehow that gob had tiny legs and a long tail. It scurried out of sight. Clatter ensued. Cutting board kerplunked, artichoke leaves flew, knife narrowly missed her foot, but above all, Emma’s shrill bounced off the kitchen walls. Stay-at-home orders were meant for humans, not rodents, she fumed as she scrubbed every inch of her body in the hottest shower that her body could tolerate.
As a child, her head danced in faraway lands. Lands filled with milk and honey, filtered sounds of mandolins, and the sweet fragrance of jasmines. The exotic lands unfolded in treasured stories and filled her fantasies. Today, she faces a new reality. No need to travel outside your front steps, for the world bands together and faces an unknown terror; a virus that doesn’t distinguish cultures or regions. We suffer the same, whether our streets are filled with colorful vendors, or swaying palm trees, or plain old johnny pumps. The new reality chilled her bones. She ached for new fantasies.
Thelma ripped pages of wasted time. Motion after motion with legal terms, such as memorialize custodial rights. The contained words had caused panic and pain, small gains and large losses, but mostly pain to the child at the center of it all. The child just wanted to freely love both parents, but they remained on high alert. One misstep, he had threatened, and he’d take legal custody. Thelma couldn’t let her guard down. Yet, it all amounted to nothing more than years of a pissing match. Hours, weeks, and years of investigating, defending, and accusing contained in a large bin.
Mami didn’t understand his words, but the doctor’s look of resignation said it all. She broke down. Dad asked next steps, but the doctor repeated, “We’ve done all we can do.” It was now in God’s hands. They tucked Andy into the stroller and left wrapped in grief. Their two-year-old boy was to never get better. That’s when the home remedies started pouring: a statue of Santa Lucia, patron saint of the blind, rosary draped around it, botanica candle lit day and night, a salve made of snake oil. “This will make his legs strong,” claimed Ester. “He will walk.”
“Come to me,” I beckoned, arms outstretched. Mami held Andy upright while Dad jiggled his legs to get him to walk. He was two, and I seven. Mami gently loosened her grip and for a moment, he stood by himself. A look of confusion, though, crossed his face, and he crumpled like an accordion folding into itself.
“His nails,” Mami screamed. They had turned a violet blue. He had stopped breathing.
Dad ran out the apartment to hail a taxicab. Mami wrapped Andy in blankets and followed Dad. By the time she got outside, he had started to breathe again.
Each case of congenital rubella syndrome manifested differently. Most fetuses aborted spontaneously. Then there were the approximate 20,000 viable births. Listen to me carefully; each pandemic must be taken seriously. In the wake of the 1964 pandemic, my brother was born with a hole in the left ventricular. He underwent immediate open heart surgery. By age two, he had undergone three heart operations, was confirmed as legally blind, and classified mentally retarded due to lack of oxygen to the brain. The aftermath of the pandemic left my parents with two growing girls, one severely sick son, and a baby on the way.
I was too young to understand the gravity, but in 1964 the world experienced the Rubella pandemic. A mild rash accompanied with a high fever that ran its course within a few days. My little sister and I both got the virus. We probably picked it up at the World’s Fair. Back then there was not a mandatory quarantine like today. Just warnings for pregnant women to stay away from infected people.
My parents gave each other furtive looks each time Radio WADO made the announcement.
My brother, born that October, was one of the 20,000 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome.
Jenny waited at the intersection. She made a mental note to call the daycare. Baby had been unusually clingy at drop off.
Traffic cleared and she proceeded to make the left turn. Midway a van appeared — a boxy van aiming to beat the red signal.
The van clipped her Honda.
Grandmother appeared and pulled Jenny out the spinning car. They watched the Honda bang into an idling Buick then into a fence.
Jenny lifted her head. Grandmother vanished. She stared at the fence; its crisscross pattern zoomed in and out. She was back in the totaled Honda, unhurt.
I pushed forward, head bent, focused on my shoelaces. Just that morning my aunt had taught me how to tie them. I felt accomplished, almost grown up. I didn’t want to hold her hand on our way to the supermarket, but she insisted. The Lower East Side was no place for unattended children. She held her son’s hand, too.
We turned the corner. A gust of wind snatched our breaths. I felt one foot leave the ground then the next. I was airborne, unable to breathe. She pulled me close. I shook her grip and latched onto the stop sign.