This morning, just like every other morning in this Brave New World, the neighbor who shares the 5th floor of the building with us is watching the news — and coughing.
Because of the forced intimacy of apartment living, I know this coughing is just residual, a leftover from back in January when she was really coughing, which was also when la portera’s son had “the flu,” and people kept going missing in my Spanish class after their parents visited from other countries because they “had fever.”
In fact, whenever I venture out to the grocery store, I realize that everyone in Madrid is coughing. The sound of coughs slips from people’s open windows, and echoes occasionally in our narrow street. Maybe people always coughed all the time but back in the old days, when a cough was benign, we just didn’t notice it.
Mingled with the sound of coughing is usually the fact that somebody’s playing a truly terrible reggaetón song somewhere. The last time I was out, someone else was playing the trumpet. That same trip, a new, nicely-designed poster had appeared in the bus stops where no one waits anymore: Do it for the Grandparents. Meaning: stay inside.
Here in Madrid, our days illustrate Europe’s prioritization of collective good over individual freedom. Over here, we’re far too intertwined to be able to do what the f— we want. This can make reading the news from the States especially chafing. At this point, I’d love to get in my car and drive to Home Depot — but here, I have no car, there is no Home Depot, and even if there were, it would be closed. You guys may be catching up on undone household maintenance and practicing social distancing, but here my chief recreation is sitting in the apartment and watching the neighbors.
There’s an elderly woman I look for, and see, every night during the applause standing at her window. To ever not see her would devastate me. Likewise, every afternoon, while I do my online Spanish lesson with my friend the Tall American, I watch a neighbor from the adjoining building carefully hang his disinfected cloth grocery bags on the clothes line extending from one window to the other.
The first time I saw him do this, I started to cry. The fact is, I don’t want to live in a world where you have to disinfect everything this way.
The second time, I was in awe of just how many shopping bags he seemed to own. The third, I felt irritated that he was hanging out his window without a shirt on. The fourth, I wondered just how many people lived in that apartment with him: he hangs up 4 or 5 bags, plus a rolling abuela cart. That’s a lot of groceries.
None of us sleep all that well these days. We’re trying, but we just can’t get enough exercise, and besides, sometimes the 3 a.m. quiet here is so just heartstoppingly quiet that it wakes you up. During my 3 a.m. wakefulness this morning, my mind wandered this way and that, until it finally landed on my neighbor who stands his boxer shorts disinfecting shopping bags.
The fact that he hangs them out to dry every day means he’s shopping every day. This evidence of his need to get out, his petty circumvention of the rules, his humanity, was so comforting that I rolled over and went back to sleep, and didn’t wake up again, until the morning.