On September 18, 2020, my stepfather’s elder brother boarded the yola. It was the tail end of hurricane season, which had left 700,000 people without electricity and a reported 1.5 million without safe, drinkable water. Painted an auspicious ocean water blue, the boat, said to be undetectable at night by La Armada de Repùblica Dominicana, held within its interior a gaggle of men who’d paid thousands of dollars in hopes of fleeing the island for the United States.
Not long into the journey, the yola was ambushed by coastal pirates. Aware of the financial investments in migrations out of Dominican Republic, they attempted to steal the boat and seize its resources. The captain, avoiding the armed attacks, jettisoned from the boat, with the key fob in his pocket. No longer in range of its signal, the engine shut off.
Stunned, the men decided to chance their way to shore. Perhaps it was the adrenaline that minimized the distance, or the ecotone indecipherable in the dark, but ambition is most cruel under these circumstances. It was clear my uncle did not possess the physical endurance to reach the shoreline.
As chance would have it, they flagged a fisherman, who at first was reluctant to help because of the impending dawn and the risk of being named an accomplice by authorities, if caught.
I learned of his disappearance in a text from my mother, as an aside to a larger conversation: “…fyi, your uncle has been missing since 5 days. Daddy is very upset and anxious.”
Following the news, my father coped with the idleness of the pandemic and the unknown whereabouts of his brother by restlessly cleaning the Bronx apartment. My mother recounted his projects, among them patching and painting a ceiling that the landlord had neglected for years. During one of the city’s heavy downpours, the ceiling had collapsed. What remained was hanging plaster and water stains that, at first, had turned yellow, then a molded brown.
When I had visited my family months earlier, on March 4, 2020, before heading out on a trip to London, concern about the coronavirus was heightening, but not enough to stall movement.
“Yo no se po’que tu ’ta viajando,” my dad said, from a gray reclining chair, his worry masked in judgment.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
Accustomed to withholding relationship details from my family, I told them only that I was traveling to visit a friend. What I didn’t say is that I was going to seek closure—though I really wanted continuance—after a severance. I had placed many hopes in this courtship. Up until that point, I had spent nearly a year and a half in Saint Louis in a graduate program that was stifling. Our six-month romance had been a balm for so much disappointment.
I don’t know why you’re traveling.
Later I wondered about how I’d dismissed my father, which I’m sure, at first, was a casual response but now mirrored the disregard many migrants to this country, like him, experience.
I was in London, spun wild with naiveté and optimism. We had spent much of that week in lengthy and redundant conversations about desire, aspirations, and life goals, attempting to make sense of our severance. On March 11, I ventured to Battersea Park, trying aimlessly to fill the time. Staring out toward the Thames River, British flags made ecstatic by the wind beside the Albert Bridge, I wondered, How did I get here?
That evening, Trump announced a travel ban to and from Europe. I was overwhelmed at the prospect of being stuck in a non-native country with someone who’d just broken up with me.
Sensing my worry, he encouraged me to call the airline to find a flight. Those calls were long, arduous, and in vain. I feared I was marooned.
My mother was the first to contract the virus. She downplayed her symptoms while we were on a FaceTime call, diverting my attention toward the line of taxis that were working in tandem with local pantries to deliver foods to families who had difficulties making ends meet or traveling to grocery stores. This aguante, the carrying of the load, I have known intimately over the years.
Days later, I received word that she had a fever, difficulty sleeping, and tightening pain in her chest. She had called a hotline to see where she could receive a Covid test; they weren’t as ubiquitous then as they are now. If you aren’t having difficulty breathing, don’t come in was the verbiage used to discourage people from visiting hospitals. The care afforded to Bronx patients is notorious for being insufficient, subpar.
Health is a luxury; it is most often easier to endure than it is to chance care.
We assumed that she had contracted the virus from my sister, who might have brought it home from the hospital where she worked. “We’re being given one disposable surgical mask per week”: I recall the paranoia in my sister’s voice. She had lost two colleagues to Covid-related complications. When my sister inquired about how or if the hospital would sanitize her station regularly, she was reprimanded. There was no sense of safety. Unlike other health professionals who didn’t have to come into contact with many who entered the hospital, as the front intake and billing receptionist she had to receive each one. She has asthma.
My dad got tested for Covid in a makeshift, outdoor clinic erected at a Bronx reservoir. He couldn’t remember the identification number they had assigned him and assumed that the adhesive label placed on his windshield for contactless testing had flown off in the wind on the drive home. He was distracted, sick, and never able to confirm his symptoms.
No one is certain about what actually unfolded. The tale goes that, either begrudged or wary of his companions, my uncle split from the group once he reached shore. Unfamiliar with that part of the island, he went into the forest to make his way toward the closest inhabited town. During one of the police searches, a pair of shorts were found. They are believed to be his.
When I asked for updates, all details amounted to nothing, some wispy trace, deteriorating in an instant. My father and my uncle’s wife in the United States were investing all their resources into getting information on his whereabouts. One rumor was that he’d been taken by Haitian kidnapés, who would soon request ransom, said to be stalled because of police searches. It is uncertain if those claims are rooted in anti-Blackness or in the realities of the kidnappings plaguing Haiti and neighboring towns in Dominican Republic.
Legend will say that there is a man who roams the town in his underwear, searching for his family. And there he stays, neither fully clothed nor whole. Just a memory. A rumor. A hope.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.