When Lovers Die
by Paul Rozario-Falcone
I actually had had a date that evening. A handsome waiter from a few meals the week before had looked me up on Facebook and sent a friend request. He knew I had recently been widowed and wanted to show me some of the gay spots in Lisbon. I said yes because I thought it was such a sweet thing to do. It showed he cared. So, the plan was dinner with friends, followed by a solo trip to meet him. But during dinner, I started feeling anxious and unwell and decided that I would simply return to the hotel. My date was disappointed, but I knew something was not quite right with me and I would not have enjoyed myself had I gone on to meet him. Something told me to take my temperature when I returned to my hotel room. 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Fuck. I messaged my friend Steve, who had arrived the day before to spend a week with me. I told him I thought I should let the hotel know. Could it be the novel coronavirus – COVID-19, as it was coming to be known? I sent a message to the group of wonderful writers with whom I had just spent a week in the beautiful Belém neighbourhood. One of them texted back immediately and said that she too had a fever. This sent the group into a flurry of messages about symptoms and monitoring. I knew I had to get myself tested, but where, how?
I called the hotel front desk, and at four in the morning two gentlemen in full hazmat suits appeared outside my room to escort me to the Santa Maria hospital. Along the way, the ambulance staff chatted to me about Pessoa and Saramago and I was delightfully distracted from my fears. At the hospital, I was taken to a tent outside the building and placed in a section cordoned off by canvas flaps, but still open to the elements. It was cold when the wind blew in. Staff came to swab my nose and throat, the first of four tests I would do over the next ten days, in two different countries. My fever continued to rise and fall with the paracetamol I was taking. A chest X-ray and blood test followed, both of them clear. As night gave way to dawn, more and more people arrived in the tent, most coughing up a storm. Until a few days earlier, Lisbon had had very few cases. But now there was an explosion of infections and the city was not prepared.
Twelve hours later, I thought I might have to stay the night, sleeping in an upright position and feeling cold, scared and vulnerable. Fortunately, because the bloodwork and chest X-ray came back negative the doctors said I would be more comfortable quarantining in my hotel room while I waited for the COVID-19 swab result. That evening I ordered a lovely meal back at the hotel, replete with my new favourite—Portuguese white wine, vinho verde. The next few days were less lovely—aches, pains, cold sweats, fever and constant anxious messaging with friends and family, to the point where I had to stop looking at my phone as I was just too frightened and exhausted.
Unexpectedly, airspace between Europe and America was to close that coming weekend, and the shitshow that was the US response to COVID-19 began to play out on TV screens around the world. I received frantic messages from American friends and family telling me to fly home immediately. My friend Steve was able to fly back to New York. But I was waiting for my results, which did not come till three days later and only because the hotel manager had pulled strings at the hospital to get the results off a friend who worked there. I was negative! But my writer friend in Providence had tested positive. I didn’t question my result.
I bought two one-way tickets—one back to New York, where I had lived for years with my husband, a Brooklyn boy, the city where I had buried him, a city I considered home; and ticket to Singapore, my birthplace, a place my late husband adored and one that I had mixed feelings about. The hotel manager had told me to fly out in the morning as he said they were going to close Portuguese airspace. That night, I called a friend in Brooklyn. Without skipping a beat, he said I should go to Singapore. And there I was the next morning experiencing at Portela Airport the chaos of a mini-evacuation of Saigon. They had already closed intra-European airspace to much screaming and shouting and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. My connection was via London. So Brexit had ensured that my flight was on schedule. I was borne away from Lisbon on a plane christened the José Saramago. Even feverish, I could still be grateful for how things had played out.
My flight from London to Singapore was full of coughing returning students. I touched down at Changi and went straight to a counter to tell them of my fever, of having been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. I was seen by medical staff within the terminal and then whisked away in an ambulance to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases. In the ambulance, I peered out at the mammoth A380s that sat silent on the tarmac (many of which have still yet to take to the skies again), my face reflected in the ambulance windows. In the photos I hurriedly snapped of this surreal journey across the airport apron, my masked visage is superimposed onto these silent metal creatures.
That evening I do another test. Negative. I get sent “home”, home being my friend’s spare room. When my husband was alive, my friend had always said that we could stay with her when visiting Singapore. So now I am with her, but alone, un-husbanded not even four months. But I am grateful I have shelter in a country where I can get medical attention fast. The following evening, the police arrive to issue me my quarantine papers. They take my temperature and say I need to go back to the hospital. They arrange an ambulance – the third one I’ve been in in the space of a week. I stay at the hospital for two days and I am tested again twice. Negative both times. In total, I’ve now been tested four times in two different countries. I’ve said that before, haven’t I? I am put on intravenous antibiotics and the fever starts to abate. Finally.
I spend the next three weeks back at my friend’s place, taking my temperature three times a day, reporting my whereabouts a couple of times to the authorities, going back to the hospital for follow-ups. I write—I try and write—and I choose to write about Italian cities suffering from the plague, of death and dying. I cry over losing my husband. I cannot see my friends, for we are in lockdown. Two months later, I start getting panic attacks, and, unable to understand what is going on, I start writing down all my fears—my fear of dying of a heart attack like my husband, my fear of dying before I see Italy again, my fear of dying before I see my Brooklyn home again. That night I call the ambulance and, yet again, I am in a hospital being checked out for a suspected heart attack. But all is clear—I only have gastritis. I go for an endoscopy a few weeks later. I have a bacterial infection. I take a course of antibiotics. I am recommended statins, but I cannot take them because they remind me of my husband Al, who had to take them three months before he died, in between his first heart attack and the next, which carried him off instantly. I saw him suffer through the first one. It was crushing for me. The air-conditioning breaks down at my friend’s house. I cannot write in the heat. I can’t read. I can’t do anything. I need to leave. My own apartment in Singapore becomes available after the tenants leave. I return to it with my dear friends in tow for support. I return to the apartment I shared with my husband during our joyous years in Singapore. I break down inside. I sob with the departing tenants, complete strangers. I sob with my neighbours, who knew Al. I am bereft and I cannot live there. While looking about the apartment, I discover a sonnet he had written three years before:
Sonnet 1: December 30, 2017
by Alphonse Falcone
When lovers die their love with them dies too.
Even famous loves must share this fate.
Though monuments recall their love, it’s true
No passion can another emulate.
Love’s scope is but confined to poets’ ink
As less than shadow does to form compete
For as the flames of love in both hearts shrink
All warm light’s clear refraction does retreat.
So love depends on creatures that have life
And follows rules of all biology
Although eternal love in Art is rife
Its true home only is theology
This is life’s function we should most revere
Us Tabernacles of the love we share.
I cry and sob anew. My friends are dumbstruck. Al has told me in no certain terms to move on. But it hasn’t even been six months and he’s telling me to leave him, to abandon our love, and I am in the deepest possible despair. I put the poem on Facebook because I cannot bear to carry this alone. Friends from around the world are in wonder at the truth of my husband’s message. But I am not ready to accept that our love for each will shrink, retreat.
Two days later, I find another place to live. A place that I think is neutral. The two homes I have are inaccessible to me—the one in Brooklyn by virtue of the chaos and disorder that prevents me from returning, the one in Singapore by virtue of the painful memory of true love lost too soon, too suddenly. But the story takes a twist… not one week in my new place, my writer friend informs our group that her positive result back in March was a false positive, and that she doesn’t have any antibodies. This would explain my constant negative results and why no one in our group actually received a positive result, even though we had spent every waking moment with each other for a week in Lisbon. None of us knows what to think anymore.
And so I am in a new space. I write from a new home, in a part of Singapore Al and I did not spend much time in. But I realise that I have come full circle after Al’s death. I am in the neighbourhood of my birth. My birth home still stands, a ten-minute walk from where I am now. My kindergarten-turned-condominium is a five-minute walk away. My secondary school is the same distance in the opposite direction. The place where I studied French as a teenager for six years is close by, too. I am being shown my life here from this perch, being shown the life that I had before Al, being reminded of the life that is to come without Al. I am being told that “love depends on creatures that have life and follows rules of all biology”, that I still have life and love in a world where I have lost both.
A former lover once told me that one can never swim twice in the exact same point of a fast-flowing river. I think of the Brooklyn that has forever changed for me with the departure of my husband, with the arrival of this virus. I think of the return to that home that looks just like it did when my husband died. I think of how I will need to walk into that space with friends and family who will hold me while I survey our bathroom, with his toothbrush and shaver still on the sink. I don’t know what the future holds anymore, and all I can do is hope that I can carry on living, loving, writing and being with the people I love, virus or no virus.
Editor’s note: This essay was commissioned for “The Writing Life Beyond COVID-10: A Virtual Residency” (3-9 August 2020, jointly organised by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and the newly founded Mongrel Writers Residence. Watch the videos here.
How to cite: Rozario-Falcone, Paul. “When Lovers Die.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Aug. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/17/lovers/.
Paul Rozario-Falcone is an itinerant author who calls Singapore and Brooklyn home. He is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts International MFA program. He authored a book on the travels of eunuch admiral Zheng He, and was the co-founder of the Singapore Literature Festival in New York. He now offers writing workshops through Safe Space Stories, a series that is based on the Amherst Writers and Artists method.