The Companion

She was elated, of course, to have some company during the quarantine. Unlike the few other friends and acquaintances she had, it seemed Elena was the only one with a pet to help her pass the days without too much solitude. Then again, these friends and acquaintances had legitimate human companions to spend their quarantine with. Of the romantic variety, obviously. Some were married or simply in long-term relationships, but either way, they had someone. Elena had Bowser, an expectedly huge German shepherd who had just turned six years old in February. He had been her trusted “steed” from the outset, for she got him at the end of her twenties, when she could sense the imminent seismic shift in relationship statuses among her age group. Her vision of the next three years turned out to be accurate, as everyone around her already in a couple announced their engagements while those who had declared themselves fiercely single suddenly started pairing up with the nearest willing party they could find. 

All at once, she turned around to find that there was no one next to her on the side of the dividing line between single and coupled. And here she thought the twenty-first century was supposed to bring about a less archaic mindset. Yet lo and behold, the crux of humanity’s preprogrammed “need” to reproduce made it so that no one could seem to let go of the retro and impossible to uphold practice of monogamy. Most outmoded of all, the “institution” of marriage. With the majority still subscribing to the practice for the sake of having a built-in tax shelter. No matter, Elena had Bowser and her job. Like many “creatives” in New York, she worked in advertising, dealing in the middling task of “writing” tag lines and letting her superior take the credit for them. It was thankless but it paid for her to live alone in a modestly-sized apartment in the West Village, which was another reason for her inability to “meet someone,” as it wasn’t exactly a cinch in what she affectionately referred to her many gay male friends as Fag Hag Town. Sure, there was an errant straight man here and there, but he was usually just as dainty and overly coiffed as the homos of the neighborhood. Elena had thus given up long ago on the notion of, at the bare minimum, those one-night stands NY was allegedly famous for… when you lived in the adult playground milieu of Brooklyn. But she was a “Manhattan gal,” it was the most corporate borough, sure, but it was also the most classic. Possessing the aesthetic she had long been indoctrinated with by the movies and TV shows of her youth, for New York was nothing if not adept at spreading its propaganda the world over. A salesman of a false bill of goods that, even if not defective, were sure to expire by the end of one’s twenties, when all the “razzmatazz” grew decidedly stale. 

So she adopted a German shepherd. Possibly the worst breed to have in a garden variety shoebox apartment–that is, the worst breed other than a Bullmastiff. But fuck it, she would get a dog walker. Just one of the many perks of living in the most simultaneously convenient and inconvenient city in the world. So it was that she grew into the routine of having a large animal in a confined space, with the dog walker coming once in the early afternoon and once after the lunch hour to take out her beloved Bowser, while she was responsible for the morning and evening walks. It was a system that worked well enough until announcement of the quarantine came from on high. Governor Duomo was no longer taking any chances on his precious New Yorkers, with everyone knowing he favored the city dwellers over the Westchester and Long Island ilk. Out of nowhere, Duomo was getting a devoted cult following for his “swift” action, even though such “essential” services as takeout from restaurants and real estate dealings were still allowed to go on. Just one of ten million reasons for the rapid and continued spread throughout the city. Goddamn, she was really starting to hate this place. She had already been considering moving after eight years spent there. And for what? To barely make ends meet and have nary a close friend to speak of? What the fuck for? She should have made arrangements to take that job in California when she had the chance. Before the world stopped. 

Now she was condemned to the inside for an unforeseen amount of time, though, unlike everyone else, she knew that, at the bare minimum, it would last through the summer, if not longer. She couldn’t think about that now. All she could do was sit next to her slobbering beast of a companion, waiting out the apocalypse with some jank Netflix programming, including, of course, Jaguar Ruler, an undeniably trashy true crime series about warring exotic animal conservationists each harboring these animals for their own distinct purpose. Starting episode one sometime after 3 p.m., Elena awoke to the forever insulting question, “Are you still watching?” sometime around 11 p.m., fully aware that she had completely fucked up her sleep schedule. But what was the point in trying to maintain a semblance of any routine when nothing was ever going to be normal again? The false construct of time humans had created to soothe themselves was decimated. And even if it could be re-created again, the illusion had already been shattered. 

Thinking this to herself as she took Bowser out for a walk around midnight when, for the first time in maybe all of New York’s modern history, the streets were desolate, with no sign of the usual stumbling club and bar goers, she stood staring up at the sky, wishing upon an invisible star that she had moved before it was too late. 

She was painfully aware more than ever that the wide open space of the West would have benefitted her sanity greatly during this period, for it would have enabled her to unleash Bowser on his own to roam freely. As it stood, the best she could get for ridding herself of him for at least twenty minutes out of the day was to take him up to the roof and let him muck about. Looking back on how everything played out, maybe it was there that he had somehow contracted COVID-19. Maybe it was left behind, lingering in the air from someone else. Maybe he rubbed against a surface that had it. The roof was a busy place, after all, being one of the only “outdoor areas” still open of late. Even though Governor Duomo had allowed the public parks to stay open to the ghettotos of the city for far too long. But then, perhaps he was aware of a complete inability of the average ghettoto to comfortably “shelter in place” in a project. The point was, the roof had become a hotspot unto itself despite urgings to socially distance. Yet, all of the sudden, neighbors wanted to get to know one another. So bored out of their gourd and lonely that they broke the sacred New York covenant of avoiding people in one’s building at all costs. 

Well Elena wasn’t about to break that covenant, leaving it instead to Bowser to do the socializing on her behalf. Socializing himself right into contracting the virus. Another instance of the government’s and public health officials’ early misinformation about what the virus was and was not capable of, initially assuring that domestic animals’ contraction of the disease was “highly unlikely.” Yet here Bowser was, having absorbed corona from a human, making the virus something fresh again in this new host. A host that would pass it once more in its new form to Elena. Taking a different shape once again inside this human. Elena, of course, had no idea that Bowser, her only quarantine ally, had become her sworn enemy in transferring a new disease entirely to her. Something that was mutated and more powerful. It took about a week for the symptoms to gather momentum, hitting her as she was watching a movie from her “familiar favorites” lineup, Drive. And as Ryan Gosling kicked in the head of Cary Mulligan’s assailant in the elevator, Elena felt like she was going to vomit. And did. Of course she knew it had nothing to do with seeing a scene of violence she had witnessed so many times before, immediately intuiting that she had the rona. Or so it would have been most simple to believe. 

The truth, as it turned out, was much more unbearable: she had contracted something off-brand and was helping Bowser to spread it with every movement the two took together throughout the building. It was a version of the virus that had more clout in airborne form, lingering behind interminably unless someone knew to clean and disinfect the entire premises. Not that the super would ever do that anyway. Managing to haul her own body to the hospital on foot, after begging a semi-familiar neighbor named Eric to watch Bowser while she was away and doing her best not to show any signs of sickness lest she get stigmatized and Eric refused to care for him, Elena was forced to wait for hours before someone would see her.

When the worn-down nurse allowed her the “privilege” of being shoved into a room that felt smaller than the one that housed the toilette in her apartment, she couldn’t stop herself from throwing up all over her. Rather than this creating a sense of urgency to the nurse, it seemed to enrage her enough to leave Elena waiting longer than she ought to have, as she started to feel as though maybe she was seeing that proverbial “light” that people always talked about when using cliches about what happens when you die. But maybe she wasn’t supposed to walk into it just yet, for soon enough she could feel her mouth being swabbed and then stuffed with some kind of liquid (liquid paracetamol?). She had been feeling faint ever since she had left her apartment, and finally surrendered to the blackness. The lovely non-consciousness that makes one forget all their troubles when they pass out. And the magical loss of any sense of time when it happens. As far as she was concerned, it could have been ten seconds or ten years for as cognizant as she was of the clock during her journey into the dark abyss of Fainting Land. As it turned out, the actual amount was about six minutes. During which she had been moved to an ICU and placed on a ventilator. “Oh, so this is where I’m at in life,” she shrugged as she watched the digital rhythm of the ventilator move in time with her own compromised breathing. 

***

She had not been able to contact Eric during the period of her hospitalization, which lasted slightly over a week. Yet she somehow assumed he would have intuitively known to take care of Bowser regardless. What’s a neighbor for, after all? With still labored breathing, she rushed to Eric’s third floor apartment before her own, even though she could have easily stopped in to drop her purse off and check on the state of her apartment, as it was on the second floor. Instead, she pounded urgently on the door of Eric’s, feeling her heart sink lower and lower as she started to sense that something must have gone wrong while she was away. Another neighbor, hearing the commotion, opened her own door and sneered. If you’re lookin’ for Eric, he’s dead.”

“What?” 

“Yeah. Couple days ago. Coroner came in and dragged him away. They’re not even bothering with ambulances anymore if there’s no breathing. I think he coulda been resuscitated if ya ask me. But ain’t nobody got the time to give tailored medical attention these days. This city’s gone to hell in a handbag. And I was here in the 70s.” She started hacking uncontrollably. Elena could feel the floor bottoming out underneath her. She found her voice long enough to ask, “Did you see a dog?”

The woman cleared her throat. “Oh. You didn’t hear that either? Geez, where have you been? The dog was infected, infected most of the people in this building from all those rooftop ‘outings’. And once again my misanthropy has proven to be my greatest asset. The thing that has made me more indestructible than a cockroach.” 

Elena ran her hand through her hair in exasperation. “Bully for you. Do you know where they might have taken the dog?”

“Beats the shit out of me. The Virus Kennel? Anyway I just came out here to tell you about it so you would quit making that fucking racket. There’s nobody home.” And with that, she slammed her own door. Leave it to a long-time New Yorker to prove that in times of even the most incredible circumstances, they still know how to put the “I don’t give a fuck” in “I don’t give a fuck about your problem.” 

Elena couldn’t remember how she had gotten into her apartment. For all she knew, a trap door opened and she fell right back onto her couch as though nothing had happened since the last instant she was seated there binge watching with Bowser at her side. Bowser who had killed a number of people in her absence, and had almost killed her while she was at it. So much for motherfucking companionship during quarantine. 

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