I’ve never read Gabriel García Marquez’s classic Love in the Time of Cholera, but the title has always fascinated me. It seems to carry the weight of hope and fear balanced precariously on its three nouns — the inexhaustible hope for love, the inescapable fear of death, and the madness which ensues when the two meet.
It is now a story almost all of us are living, in one way or another. You, with the elderly grandfather at home and a constant risk of bringing the disease home to him. You, with the newborn child in the ICU while the city’s first coronavirus cases are being treated in the same hospital. You, with the wife who works fourteen-hour days diagnosing and treating coronavirus patients in a hospital which is running out of masks and gloves for its staff. The threat of sickness has made those we love more dear.
For me, the madness struck last week — or perhaps I should say it escalated. About half a year ago I fell in love, head over heels within a few days, with an extraordinary woman from Iran. Azi is clever, beautiful, impulsive, charming, the light of my life. I was in China for four months on a study abroad, so we spent as much time together as possible and fell deeper in love. Then came the time I was supposed to return for my last semester of university in France. It was a difficult decision to leave her, but I did it with the promise that I would graduate, find a good job, and either return to China or fly her to join me wherever I ended up.
Coronavirus has changed many plans in the world. It changed ours. She narrowly avoided the worst of the outbreak in Iran, while she was visiting her family, and she returned to China when it had things relatively under control. Things in France, however, were spiraling. In early March, when it became clear that my classes were not going to convene anytime soon, we decided together that I should return to China as soon as possible, both to be with her during this madness and to enjoy the relative safety of that country. And the first step, we thought, would be to get out of Europe and into Asia, where I could apply for a tourist visa to China from one of its neighbors.
Life, as it does, interfered. My first flight, into Vietnam, was cancelled — only Vietnamese citizens and those already in possession of visas were allowed to board. I waited in line two hours at the Paris airport to book another flight, and the only Southeast Asian country with a ticket that day was Malaysia, conveniently a country she can visit easily (in normal times). So I bought the ticket and made the long flight. The day after I arrived I visited the Chinese embassy, where I was assured things would be normal for the foreseeable future and I could get my visa within a few days. I prepared the paperwork and went first thing the next morning, only to find the embassy closed. All travel from Malaysia to China is suspended until April 1, at least.
Bruised, but not broken, Azi and I got on the phone and discussed the next step. Perhaps she could come to me in Malaysia, where — if less safe than in China — at least we would be together. So we checked with a local travel agency and found that the Malaysian government had banned entry of all Iranian citizens because of the outbreak there, regardless of whether they had visited the country recently.
We were so close. It will have to wait a few more weeks or months now, while this storm blows over, me in Malaysia and her in China.
To love in the time of coronavirus is to be confronted with the naked madness of life. Never have I felt so happy in the present, so hopeful for the future, so accepting of the past, as I do with her. Yet with an invisible virus threatening our plans, our families, and our lives, I live every day with an indefinable fear, knowing that we are very likely to escape unscathed but that we may not and that, even if we do, the world will never be the same.
Not only that, but love and death have a peculiar way of getting confused with each other, particularly in mad times. Wrapped into love is risk, and with it fear — a broken heart is not easily mended. And wrapped into death is rest, and with it hope — of heaven, or nirvana, or just plain rest. This time of coronavirus has laid bare something which many of us don’t remember in the daily course of life: as bad as dying will probably be, it will be better than losing someone we love. So we sit in our houses, and fear, and hope, and try not to die of loneliness or impatience or despair or a million other maladies which will surely strike as we strive to hold our collective breath and not catch this one.
And for me? García Marquez once told his biographer, “The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.” In the time of coronavirus, love has taken its proper place at the head of my priorities. May this time teach me to keep love there when this is all past and I’m allowed to shake everyone’s hands again.