Postcards from a Quarantined Paradise
Craig Santos Perez's Letter from Hawaiʻi
March 13, 2020
It’s the last day of my “Food Writing” class before spring break. Several students are out sick, and those present look exhausted. Hawaiʻi may be one of the most isolated places in the world, but it’s also an international hub. All the positive coronavirus cases thus far are travel-related, spreading through Waikīkī. The Honolulu airport is deemed a potential “super-spreader.”
We discuss our current topic: grocery stores. How do they function in society? How are they represented in literature and film? What characters and scenes do we encounter there? How does a grocery store tell a story?
I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d see my students in person.
March 22, 2020
Today, the Governor of Hawaiʻi issued a work-from-home order. “Community spread.”
I nervously drive to Costco in Waipahu. The line to the parking lot extends around the block, and it takes me thirty minutes just to find a space.
I try not to touch my face while navigating the crowded aisles. The water, toilet paper, eggs, and milk are already gone. I grab all the meat and frozen fruits and vegetables I can find.
As I wait in the crowded check-out line, I look around at everyone’s concerned faces and carts full of canned goods and boxed foods. I feel lucky. My job is safe: online and remote. And I can still afford rent and food in the most expensive place in the world to buy toilet paper. The bill is $450—the most I’ve ever spent on a single grocery trip. I feel a kind of survivor’s guilt.“I’ll visit her tomorrow. Wave through the window.”
When I return home, my daughters are sleeping, and my wife is sanitizing every surface. The national news plays on the television. “250,000 cases worldwide.” I disinfect and put away the groceries in the pantry and fridge. “10,000 deaths.” I freeze enough meat to last months. “Habitats destroyed. Bats and pangolins butchered.” I take a hot shower.
How long can we shelter in place?
March 25, 2020
I leave the apartment for the first time. I drive to Longs pharmacy to refill my 5 year-old daughter’s asthma inhaler and Montelukast prescription. She was hospitalized last year because she couldn’t breathe. “Immuno-compromised.”
March 27, 2020
My mom calls from California, where the virus has spread like wildfire. She’s had a dry cough and sore throat, but her doctor said she doesn’t qualify for a test. No fever.
“Hopefully, it’s just a cold,” she says.
I ask about grandma, who’s 92 years-old, dementia.
“Her care home is quarantined,” my mom says. “I called her on the phone, but she doesn’t understand why no one visits her anymore. I explain the pandemic to her everyday because she doesn’t remember. I’ll visit her tomorrow. Wave through the window.”
I feel an ocean length apart.
April 2, 2020
“Happy birthday to you,” I sing to my daughter as we wash our hands together. She doesn’t understand this new ritual because her real birthday is months aways. She doesn’t understand why her school was shutdown, why she has to stay home all the time, why we can’t go to the playground.
I don’t know how to explain the pandemic to her.
So I scrub her fingernails and repeat: “Happy birthday to you…”
I close my eyes and make a wish: six lit candles on a chocolate cake, unopened presents, our family who traveled across the ocean to celebrate with us.
I hear them singing.
And no one, no one, is missing.
April 10, 2020
Good Friday. I buy two dozen eggs from Safeway—the per-person limit. I don’t want to go back to Costco.
At home, my wife boils a pot of water, mixes vinegar and food coloring in small bowls. We livestream mass from inside the burnt shell of Notre Dame. “Ave Maria, Gratia plena.”
On CNN: images of Hart Island, dozens of unclaimed bodies buried in unpainted pine caskets.
We dye the Easter eggs, plan where we’ll hide them in our small apartment.
“Et benedictus fructus ventris.”
April 12, 2020
Easter Sunday. We wake early. Brew coffee. Cook banana pancakes. On the local news: a procession of cars waits in line at Ala Moana mall. The Salvation Army has donated two tons of potatoes; 4,000 cartons of eggs; 2,000 gallons of milk; and 3,000 loaves of bread. For hours, volunteers wearing masks and gloves load food into every empty trunk. A contactless communion.
We set the table. Butter, syrup, juice. On the national news: farmers dump 2,000 gallons of milk into manure pits; plow ripe vegetables into the soil; break a million unhatched eggs. What if the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitudes wasn’t God’s endless provision, but the gospel of human generosity? What if, when we care for each other, we resurrect our bodies, full of grace?
April 15, 2020
Our daughters fall asleep earlier than usual. My wife and I shower, brush our teeth. We’ve been so busy homeschooling, teaching online, attending zoom meetings, grocery shopping, cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, watching the news, disinfecting everything.
It’s awkward at first. Kissing. Touching. Is it safe? For weeks, our bodies have been nothing more than vectors of disease.
We inch closer, slowly, as if emerging from separate quarantines. Our skin. Tensed. At the vulnerable. Risk. Of reopening.
At least for this night, our bodies become, again, vectors of desire.
April 20, 2020
Hundreds of tourists continue arriving everyday. Cheaper flights, discounted hotel rates (reservoirs of disease). Residents protest at the airport. One sign asks: “Why is your vacation more important than our health?”
Under pressure, the governor finally establishes a two week quarantine for all visitors. However, many tourists break quarantine, post selfies at the beach on social media. Some are arrested and fined.
Not even a pandemic can shutdown paradise.
April 25, 2020
My mom calls again. Says the funeral director called. If grandma dies, we aren’t allowed to have a funeral service. Shouldn’t grieving together be our most essential business?
May 2, 2020
My wife, who’s Hawaiian, tells me about the history of disease here. After the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, epidemics flood the islands in the wake of foreign ships (reservoirs of disease). Cholera, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough, smallpox, leprosy. Ninety percent of the native population dies over the course of 50 years. No immunity, no safe place to hide.
As she tells this story, her voice breaks like waves of intergenerational trauma. Moments of silence between sentences. Each word: a quarantined island.
May 10, 2020
I call my mom for Mother’s Day. She visited grandma in the afternoon, sat outside, talked to her through the window, explained the pandemic again, why she can’t come inside.
“Grandma wants to go home,” my mom says. “She’s so lonely.”
I visited grandma when I was in California for Christmas. I was supposed to visit again this summer, but that trip has been cancelled. Will I ever see her again? Will this be her last Mother’s Day?
“I want to hug my grandkids,” my mom sighs, no longer able to hold her tears at a safe distance.
May 12, 2020
Pacific Islanders in California, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are contracting coronavirus at disproportionately high rates compared to other racial groups. We suffer from high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart and lung disease, asthma, hypertension, and cancer. Colonial co-morbidities.
Pacific Islanders are frontline workers. We live in multi-generational households. In our cultures, elders are essential and unending sources of wisdom, history, memory, and love. If we lose a single elder, we lose a multitude of stories.
I look at maps tracking the pandemic. Our peoples and islands are not even included. Invisibility is a pre-existing condition for Pacific Islanders in the United States.
May 16, 2020
My students submit their final creative writing assignment. Nearly all their short fiction stories are pandemic, apocalyptic, survivalist, sci-fi, and/or zombie stories that take place in a grocery store. I give them all A’s.
June 1, 2020
Viral videos of George Floyd’s death crash against our shores. Videos of peaceful protests and riots. Viral videos of mourning and looting. Videos of tear gas and rubber bullets. Viral videos of police cars and precincts on fire. Videos of countless arrests. Viral videos of the national guard and private militias. Videos of Trump holding a bible in front of a church. Viral Videos of George Floyd’s 6 year-old daughter saying: “Daddy changed the world.”
June 5, 2020
We live in Aiea, which is just a few minutes drive to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and home to many military personnel and their families who live off-base. While countless U.S. soldiers at bases around the world and on aircraft carriers have tested positive for Covid-19, the military here won’t disclose to the public the exact numbers of infected soldiers in Hawaiʻi because of “security” reasons. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that military members traveling to Hawaiʻi for the upcoming training and war games known as “RIMPAC” will be exempt from the state’s quarantine guidelines.
Not even a pandemic can demilitarize paradise.
June 6, 2020
It’s the hottest day of the summer. We turn on the AC and close the black out drapes.
More than 10,000 people attend a Black Lives Matter march from Ala Moana Beach Park to the State Capitol in Honolulu. We watch a Facebook livestream on our laptops.
Our daughters, tired from playing, lie down to nap. My wife takes their temperature. How long can we shelter each other in a world where children can’t play with friends at school, where elders can’t breathe without ventilators, where we can’t hug without fear?
I turn on CNN but mute the volume. It’s strange to watch protests and not hear chanted slogans; strange to see looting without the sound of glass shattering; strange to witness police brutality as silent shrapnel. How long can we shelter each other when there’s no vaccine for the virulent outbreaks of human greed and racial violence?
They replay the video: a white cop’s knee choking a black man’s neck. His lips move but his voice is an unheard riot.
Our youngest daughter stirs. I gently rub her back. Her body curls like a flattened curve. Breathing, peacefully.
Please, I whisper, don’t wake up yet. x