A knock on the door pulled my attention from the movie I was watching. I knew without doubt that it was the cleaner. She always came by this time. I made no move to stand up and open the door. I didn’t want to leave the warmth of the thick blankets that had become my solace for the past few days. I watched from the side of my eyes as my roommate got up to open the door, her loud voice questioning the identity of the knocker. She also knew it was the cleaner, but it was fun to shout the words in a querying manner, the same tone she used when she queried us, her mouth heavy with the smell that I had come to associate with Chinese food, about separating the trash when we disposed of them. It was one of the few things that gave us joy these days. With the constant cautions against meeting with friends, staying in groups of more than two people or doing anything that would leave you vulnerable to the virus, there was very little one could do for fun.
She followed my roommate into the room, her lips stretched out in a smile as she asked what we were doing. It didn’t take long for her to catch the smell of bleached oil and egusi that still clung to the air in the room even after my roommate had opened the windows to air the room after cooking.
“What did you cook today? Is it your country’s food?” Her eyes swept through the room, seeking the source of the aroma. My roommate brushed away her questions, saying we had finished it.
Disappointment shone on her face as she went about her task, spraying disinfectant on the walls and curtains. The sickening smell of disinfectant filled the room. I brought the blanket over my head. The first few days they had sprayed it, I’d had to air the room for four hours to get the chemical smell out of my room. She had begun to reduce the quantity of the disinfectant she sprayed after the office got complaints from students. With the way she had sprayed it, one would think we were the virus that she hoped to eradicate.
“Next time, make sure you open the windows when you cook so that the smell will not disturb the other students,” she didn’t forget to say as she left the room. My roommate’s reply was just as enthusiastic as it was fake.
My roommate shared my doubts about her warm reception of our cooking in the room. It was a violation of the rules of the hostels. Not only was she not seizing our cooking utensils, she was also giving us tips to avoid leaving traces of the crime.
Maybe it was because it was a ‘sensitive period’. Every announcement that the school had made since the virus became widespread started with: “Because it is a sensitive period…”It followed the announcement that postponed resumption and the one that banned students from returning to school or China from their home countries or wherever they were, even if they were in China. It was that announcement that had resounded how sensitive it was, the one that came with threats of expulsion and termination of scholarships, and dealing with trespassers according to the country’s laws, laws that were not at all lenient to foreigners that went against them.
“Jesus, this thing is serious o!” My mother had screamed when I told her about the school’s decisions. “Are you sure you will not come back to Nigeria?” she had kept on asking. I told her that I didn’t want to go back, that I was safer in school.
“The school is taking strict measures about the virus,” I reassured her. I made sure to tell her of the daily temperature checks that the school made sure we get, asking if we felt okay, conducting tests to students that seemed ‘suspicious’. And also that the school had even taken to running errands for us, buying eggs and fruits and bringing it to us so that we wouldn’t have any reason to leave the hostel. And that so far, there had been no occurrence of the virus in my school or its environs. So I was safe.
I couldn’t tell her that even though I envied the students of the Sports University—the school had bought all of them round-way tickets to go back to their countries. I still dreaded the thought of going back to the country especially when it hadn’t been six months since I bade goodbye to my parents at the international airport in Abuja. It was just too soon to go back.
I had watched the senatorial proceedings over the motion to evacuate the Nigerians in Wuhan. And I was reminded of my early decisions to avoid watching Nigerian senatorial proceedings. It was never positive. My roommate had raged over and over about senators laughing over the plight of the Nigerians, and I could only watch her in silently, my heart breaking over their plight, to be abandoned by the very place you called home. We didn’t say it, but somehow we were beginning to separate ourselves from the place we called our homeland. It was no wonder that most would prefer to survive in China with the virus than to return to their country.
“Roomie, over 20,000 people—”
“Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” I would have stuck my fingers in my ears to stop myself from hearing the words if I didn’t have my earpiece stuck in them.
I had decided to stop checking the Corona statistics that only seemed to go higher by the day. It only added to my anxiety. It was hard enough worrying that I would get the virus whenever I left my room, even if it was just to throw the trash. Or that I would contact it when I went to buy foodstuffs at the school supermarket.
The news and the media were doing little to reduce the anxiety I felt whenever I heard the word ‘corona’. Even the Ebola hadn’t sounded as scary as Corona did to me. And to think that the first physical form of the virus had been found on a door handle. I had cleaned up the doors and the windows for the first time since I started living in the hostel. My roommate had laughed at me, that I was being too worried, that we lived on the last floor and it was too far from the ground for the virus to reach it. I didn’t mind. At least it gave me something to do.
While infected door handles and windows were the foremost in my mind, they seemed to be the least in the minds of my roommate and her boyfriend. I had woken up to ease myself in the night, the sounds that came from her side of the room made me ignore the push against my bladder and pretend that I was sleeping, tightening my legs under my blanket to hold the liquid inside.
“This corona will ruin relationships,” she had complained several times. I had not believed her, until that night after spending almost three hours writhing on my bed because I didn’t want to alert her to the fact that I was awake and I was listening to her and her boyfriend over the phone.
Speaking of ruined relationships, I wondered what my boyfriend would think. He had called me after he had a panic attack over staying home for three days. I could hardly believe it. Get a panic attack from being indoors all the time? I have been indoors for two weeks and I never felt any attack. Even binge-watching American action series—his favorite—couldn’t take his mind off the feeling of being caged in. I didn’t understand why anyone would feel caged in from being home for three days, but I’d kept on muttering, “I’m telling you” as he ranted about how tired he was of being home all day. In truth, the only thing that had been on my mind as I agreed with him was that he’d hang up so that I could go back to the movie I was watching. But I still had to play the part of the caring girlfriend. When he said talking to me had a calming effect on him I had felt my eyes roll to the back of my head.
“It’s just three days,” I had to cry out.
We were two weeks into the ‘Corona Era’ as we referred to it, and I was beginning to run out of exciting things to do. I had watched a lot of movies that I didn’t think I was ever going to ever say no if I was ever asked ‘Have you ever watched…?’ It was tiring, watching movies all day.
The office had doubled our assignment load. Truthfully, it gave me something to do, but I’d rather spend the ‘Corona Era’ catching up on sleep, food, and movies that I would miss as soon as the era was over.
It was snowing again. I watched with what I hoped was a soulful look at the white cotton balls falling from the sky. I wanted to go out and take pictures and lie down in the snow like in the movies, but the school had sent another announcement to the group as soon as the snow had started falling. There were harmful particles in the snow and we were not to have contact with it.
I couldn’t wait for the Corona Era to be over. I didn’t want to go on dates with my boyfriend like my roommate, neither did I think of going back to earning cash like Pagez, the Nigerian student that lived two rooms away, or simply be outside and not feel caged in like my boyfriend who was suddenly claustrophobic. I just wanted to play in the snow and breathe in fresh air without being worried about viruses flying around the air.
A work of fiction, born from real events.