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For literary responses to COVID-19 from writers around the world, check out our Voices from the Pandemic series.
from the June 2020 issue

Really Real Dragons

In humorous and reflective brief notes, Laia Jufresa records daily life in quarantine in Edinburgh.


My daughter is a doctor. A dragon doctor. I know this because she tells me every day, all day long, and has been doing so for a month, ever since the nurseries closed. Her conviction wavers only occasionally, when she asks: Mamá, where can I find a real dragon? She says this in Spanish, but puts the words “real dragon” in the English order: adjective, noun. When she speaks, she does so mainly in Spanglish. Since she is three years old and I have absolutely no ambition to be a teacher, my only mission during quarantine is to correct her Spanish. Her father’s mission is to take her out in the sun once a day (“sun,” here in Scotland, is relative. Let’s call it “the fresh air”). And so I correct her: “‘Real dragon’ is English; in Spanish we say dragón real.” “No,” she insists, annoyed, “this is another kind of real dragon, this is a real-real dragon.” “Oh, OK,” I say, and I am content with this.

I promised myself I wouldn’t use the first-person plural to talk to my daughter. It’s a promise I break every single day, generally first thing in the morning. She gets into our bed really early and after just a few minutes I’m already at it: “We don’t kick! We don’t scratch! No, no, we don’t fart in people’s faces, damn it!”

We don’t know if she became a doctor because she thought that this way, we’d let her leave the house. These days, we only listen to the news with headphones on, just in case. As I give her breakfast, I listen with one ear to the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast. I promised myself that this would be my only source of pandemic information, and I devour it early so that, by nine o’clock, I will have moved on from a state of global depression and be ready to carry out my maternal duties or, if it’s my turn on that particular day, to shut myself away in the study to work. This is another promise I break every single day.

In the UK at the time of writing, we are allowed out once a day to exercise. When I go out on my own, I run (this is relative; let’s say that I trot). When I go out with my daughter, I herd her along, trying to keep her two meters away from anyone who approaches. I try to do it nicely (just as, when we hear an ambulance, we chant “neeee-nawww, neeee-nawww,” and do a little dance), but I can’t do it. After just a couple of streets I’m already at it: “No, we don’t go up close to people!”

In Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums, which I used to pass on the bus every day but which now seem incredibly remote because they're not in my neighborhood, I once heard something that changed forever my idea of the past, like when a cousin takes some old negatives to be developed and you realize that, way back in 1950, your grandmother was painting her nails a bright shade of ’80s orange. What I heard was this: Before the invention of anesthetic, hospitals were the noisiest places in the world.

Friends in big cities write to me: “The silence—it’s incredible!” Friends in other big cities say: “The sound of ambulances is unbearable!” Sometimes, friends who live in different areas of the same big city say both of these things to me. Their perception, I suppose, is simply and directly related to how close they live to a hospital. In a silenced city, hospitals and their tentacles become the epicenters of noise once more.

I have noticed that when I go out for a trot, if someone doesn’t respect the two-meter rule and there’s no space for me to step out of the way, I hold my breath. This has absolutely zero scientific basis, but I can’t help it. And I have a hunch that I’m not alone. There must be millions of us around the world all doing it. It’s a new syndrome. Involuntary Apnea Due to Human Proximity.

Never have there been so many of us in the first-person plural. Not because the virus brings us together, of course, or because it is a leveler—quite the opposite. But never have so many of us been living through such a similar situation at the same time in so many places. How’s it going? I write to a Brazilian friend after a decade without any news from her. How are you coping? I write to a friend in India who I haven’t seen for fifteen years. They all reply, they all know what I’m talking about. Never have preambles been so unnecessary.

I emerge from the living room to investigate a sound. It’s my daughter, who is holding an unidentified pink plastic object. I have no idea where it came from—probably the charity shop where I sometimes buy us toys for fifty pence. Then I recognize it: it’s for giving massages. But she is holding it with both hands, sending it zigzagging down the hallway. Away! she orders it. Away from the coronavirus!

Similarly, never have so many of us fitted into our apartment. We are three real people, but many more real-real people. Most of them we’ve known since before the pandemic. Cara, for instance, has been living with us for over a year. At first, her being everywhere made me uncomfortable. I asked the nursery teacher if she thought it was normal for a two-year-old girl to have such concrete imaginary friends. She told me that in twenty years on the job she hadn’t seen anything like it, but that it certainly wasn’t abnormal. I am content with this. But three weeks into quarantine, I start feeling uncomfortable again when invisible versions of real friends start showing up. I contact their parents. We set up a few disastrous video calls with our kids.

One day I’m having breakfast standing up, purely so I can warm my buttocks on the radiator, and suddenly I notice my daughter staring curiously at me over her banana yogurt.  What are you doing? she asks. Damn it, she’s caught me talking to myself. I ad lib: I’m talking to Cara’s mom. She is content with this.

As a kid, I was jealous of the children who had imaginary friends, so I pretended I had a few of my own. I now know that what I did was cheating. My daughter’s imaginary friends are real; mine were fictional. They still are. I don’t know how old I was when I started speaking to real-real people all day long. But I do know what time it is, in normal, non-pandemic life, when I go from the news to my novel, from my daughter to my characters. It’s a transition that starts as soon as her father takes her to the nursery. But now: how am I going to make that transition properly with all of us stuck in the same freaking house? 

I find it amusing that, in between my greatest horror (at the dead and the sick, at the many crises that are yet to come) and my minor horrors (at growing fat in lockdown, or that we run out of wine or toilet roll), there is an intermediate horror. Not that my family might intrude while I’m writing my novel, but that they might actually intrude into the novel itself. It hasn’t even happened yet and already I’m at it: No, no—we don’t write autofiction, damn it!

I find my daughter sticking band-aids onto the pink object. It’s my dragon, she informs me: it’s got an ouchie. My enthusiasm is genuine: now the real-real dragon is really real! It has grown a body. End of the ontological muddle. Perhaps the best fifty pence I’ve ever spent.

                                                                          –

As far as I can understand, the current muddle is epidemiological, but also systemic, epistemic, statistical, geopolitical, and economic. Ethical, at times. Epic, every day. But not ontological. The virus is. And, faced with this clarity, our sense of the following grows hazy: that which should have been, that which isn’t so, and that which will be.

Scotland’s First Minister recently gave a press conference in which she, unlike the government in Westminster, highlighted the importance of transparency. And so, with total transparency and treating us—in her own words—as grown-ups, she told us that the most certain thing is that all bets are off.

In August—perhaps; all bets are off—my daughter will start school. She’ll go to the tuition-free school over the road, which is not an English-language school but a Scots Gaelic one; Gaelic is a Celtic language that, at least in my head, sounds like Tolkien’s Elvish. I only know how to say “Thank you” in Scots Gaelic. But in week four of lockdown I tell myself that’s enough of correcting Spanish, and I start to look for Gaelic lessons. My daughter must feel like she’s at the end of her tether, too, because after finishing a video call with one of her little friends, she yells furiously: I want to see REAL people!

My first great love began in a chatroom. When I say “research,” I’m generally talking about googling something. I feel closer to the friends I write emails to than those who are near me. But it still sends me into a panic imagining that my daughter might start school online. This disdain for the internet makes me feel real, but in a way that is slightly moralizing. My addiction to the internet, meanwhile, also makes me feel real, but in a way that is more precarious, more basic. More human?

I have also noticed, on my walks, that people who are out there chatting to really real people arouse suspicion. Did they arrange to meet up despite the rules against seeing your friends? Because, if they do live together, what could they possibly have to say to each other at this stage of quarantine? It’s an age-old syndrome. Defamation Due to Envy.

What are you playing? my husband asks, sticking his head around the kitchen door. We’re repeating impossible sounds in front of a YouTube video. We’re counting in garlic! my daughter says. Gaelic, I correct her, without the “r.” How do you say “seven”? her father asks. Tap-la, I say, and he is content with this. (But tap-la means thank you, and I have no idea how you spell it.)

It occurs to me that being a writer of fiction requires a constant oscillation between fascination for and repulsation toward really real people.

If my daughter had used this phrase, I would have told her, “No, we don’t say ‘repulsation.’” I wouldn’t be able to say, “It’s a verb, not a noun,” because those are the lyrics of Ricardo Arjona’s hit ballad “Jesus is a verb, not a noun,” and it really sets off my cheesometer. But my daughter doesn’t say “repulsation.” My daughter can’t pronounce her r’s. Or, as my friends (who these days gather around their screens on Zoom as religiously as they used to gather around the bar) never tire of saying: She talks like a gringa.

The scales of her bilingualism tip up or down depending on which grandmother she has Skyped with most recently. If we hear her exclaim: Oh, dear! in English, it means she’s just spoken to my mother-in-law. If, after telling one of her stories, she ends it with, “That’s not true, I was just pulling your leg” in Spanish, it means she has been talking to my mother and so is using the very Mexican “nomás andaba vacilando.” Her sense of identity varies, too. She goes from “I’m such a vaciladora” to “I’m so silly.” It’s impossible to know what she’ll say about herself when she learns Gaelic. It makes me very wistful knowing that I won’t be able to understand her.

I’m not interested in baking pandemic bread. The sudden urge to plant tomatoes leaves me cold. I feel nothing but bemusement at all the people engaged in feverish spring cleaning. But not recording everything in written form at this moment in time does makes me feel guilty. As it always has. When I was pregnant, I felt bad for not describing my own bodily changes. Ever since I gave birth, I have lived with the guilt of not writing down what my daughter says, of not filling up notebooks with my reflections on motherhood. I’m embarrassed that I don’t think anything at all about motherhood (it’s a verb, not a noun). Now, I feel guilty for not keeping a quarantine diary. Or perhaps I just feel wistful because I won’t be able to understand myself.

This is what I know about the spring of 2020, thanks to the daily glimpse we are allowed: At the start of lockdown, there were no flowers. The flowers came out. The flowers are beginning to drop.

My cheesometer is switched off on Thursday nights, at 8:00 PM on the dot. This is the time when, here in the UK, we open our windows and doors—me wrapped in a duvet—and clap and cheer for the National Health Service until we’re hoarse. Not even soccer triggers my sense of Mexican nationalism; not even the Queen’s speech reversed my anti-imperialist streak; and yet, every Thursday without fail, the clap for carers and the NHS breaks me. I want to believe that this emotion isn’t patriotism, but rather something closer to humanism, or universalism. That we’re clapping for all the doctors and nurses in the world. That we’re harnessing the noise, alleviating, for a nanosecond, the hospitals’ burden. But who knows: we’ve already seen how health systems actually make more visible the differences and borders between people. And just to add to my doubts, there are the bagpipes. Out in the street, one of our neighbors, fastidiously attired in tartan kilt, plays hers at full volume (there is no other way to play the bagpipes) for around ten minutes and this, I am sure, helps us keep the applause going for longer, as well as magnifying all the emotion stirred up by the ritual. That’s when I wonder whether Scottish nationalism hasn’t gotten into me by osmosis, or the way a virus gets into you, when your guard’s down. And I also wonder whether we don’t all, in part, come from the place where our children grow up. If we aren’t all, or won’t end up being, partly, from the place where we spent quarantine. This is an identitary muddle. But not—at least for as long as the place we are in is the place where we’re meant to stay put—a logistical one.

When, in the future, my daughter asks me what we did in the days of the coronavirus, I’ll show her this text. It’s a real-real diary, I will say. And she will be content with that.


“Real dragón real” © Laia Jufresa, originally published in the Revista de la Universidad de México. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.


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