Livingston Road, Historic Shaker Square District, Cleveland, Ohio
March 31, 2020—12:10 a.m.
“Oh my gosh Babe! What are we going to do? Do you think they are going to make us all get vaccinated?!” Vimbayi spoke with terrible dread in her voice as the film credits began to roll. Damien and Vimbayi just got done watching the 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion, which is a movie about healthcare professionals, government officials, and everyday people living in the midst of a pandemic as the CDC works to find a cure. The movie eerily mirrored the same situation of their real life COVID-19 outbreak. States being placed on lockdown. Curfews were put in order. Social distancing and face masks were mandated. All public spaces and places were shut down. Millions of people were dying. There was a race to discover a vaccine.
“Don’t worry babe!” Damien said. “They will eventually come up with a vaccine and it will all go back to normal—just like in the movie.” He said with an insecure tone. Vimbayi had already become obsessed with all things COVID-19. She relied on the nightly news reports, where she was always shocked about the increased infection rate and death toll. She made sure that her household stayed packed with all the essentials. The pantry was full of snacks and dry goods. They had plenty of bottled water and canned goods. Their family practiced cleanliness, making sure their children washed their hands as they kept them in doors. They wore latex gloves and face masks in public. She washed her face and hands repeatedly and continuously wiped down all touchable surfaces throughout the house and expected Damien to participate in and enforce the cleanliness and order necessary to keep Vimbayi’s phobia at bay. Over the course of the evening, Damien had a few drinks and was a little tipsy by the end of the movie. Kissing his wife goodnight, he realized that his empty minded “just like the movie” response offered no comfort whatsoever. He wasn’t sleepy. Damien knew that binge watching movies and TV series about pandemics wouldn’t be the best idea. The Ware family’s Netflix-and-chill quarantine style made Damien restless.
In the dark, on his side of the bed, Damien held on tight to his optimism, as a family of five experiencing a nationwide lock down. In the dark, the house was quiet and everyone was sleep—leaving him alone in his thoughts as they played out on the ceiling above him. His mind raced between the day’s headlines and the fact that the movie was so real. Dwelling on various parts of the movie, Damien placed himself and his family in the various possible scenarios. He thought about the future for his children, Dakarai (9), Garikia (5), and Danayi (3), and their education. At the beginning of the pandemic, Damien and Vimbayi lost both of their jobs. Vimbayi, an administrative secretary with the local school district, was laid off due to schools being closed for the rest of the year. Damien, who is a social worker, was suddenly fired from his job with the federal government for what he believed to be retaliation for whistleblowing on a supervisor. Nevertheless, they had no income, and no one was hiring in either one of their fields of employment. They had no health insurance. Bills and mortgage were steady due. Their savings dwindled by the minute. They had to apply for government assistance and his claim for unemployment was under appeal.
Getting up out of bed, Damien grabbed his glass that sat on his nightstand. The glass had a couple of swallows left. With his glass in hand, he walked over to their bedroom window. Looking past the curtains and into the still dark street, gleaming beneath the rain and the streetlights, Damien remembered his service to his country during Operation Iraqi Freedom and said to himself aloud, “This too shall pass!”
Livingston Road, Historic Shaker Square District, Cleveland, Ohio
March 31, 2020—6:00 a.m.
In an attempt to reinvent their thirteen-year marriage, they dedicated themselves to a healthy living lifestyle. This was an attempt to intentionally focus their energy on coming out of this worldwide pandemic better individuals as a family. Since the pandemic began, Damien and Vimbayi started walking three times day, morning, noon, and night. This calculation was based on Vimbayi’s step count needing to be 10,000 steps. She was playing no games about their weight loss journey. The pandemic sets Damien’s wife on the journey that has been staring at her in the mirror, living in her waistline since the birth of her child Danai back in 2016.
They try to leave early enough to watch the sunrise break into the day, but because of Mr. Ware’s white wine embellishments the night before, it was hard for him to roll out of bed at their usual time. Damien and Vimbayi's living exercise route changed from time to time. Being that they lived on the border of Cleveland and Shaker Heights, it was trickery choosing the most peaceful and serene routes where Vimbayi never felt comfortable or walking the Kinsman or Buckeye route where Damien on the other hand felt right at home. The abandoned homes, vacant lots, excessive morning blight of empty Hennessy bottles, used food boxes and random types of trash—hair weave, condom wrappers, cigar butts—were too unsettling to walk pass at times. On a walk towards Buckeye and Shaker Square one morning, they walked past a bus shelter that had human excrement smeared on the bench and shelter window. A horrible sight that they both couldn’t unsee as they vowed never to walk that way again.
The early morning vagrancy for bus fare, a sandwich, or a cup of coffee from people that seemed to be roaming from the night before also made the morning walk unpleasant. On another morning, Damien and Vimbayi walked by what seemed to be a homeless man lying in front of the entrance door of the neighborhood convenience store on 140th street. It was 5:45 a.m. and the store wasn’t even open yet. On this particular day, they chose a route that extended from their home on Livingston Road, which is in the Historic Shaker Square District, into the Shaker Heights neighborhoods to Shaker Heights High School, back to their quaint home, settled on the border that separated inner-city southeast Cleveland from the pristine forested streets of Shaker Heights.
“Alright babes, I’m ready when you are!” Damien said coming out of their bedroom’s bathroom. Coming into the bedroom – Vimbayi was ready to go, but was preoccupied with News Channel 5’s morning report . . .
“Ahmaud Arbery, a black man that was seen investigating a neighborhood construction site, was chased and gunned down by white vigilantes who were father and son . . . chirp.”
As the report continued on, Damien interrupted the broadcast by turning the TV off, bringing an end to her anxious gaze as they reported about another black man being killed by the hands of systematic racism. “Let’s go babe—so we can this morning going!” Damien said, knowing how the news as of late has been a trigger for the both of them. Their daily workout routine and diet released the endorphins necessary to keep them well as they addressed the pressures of indefinite uncertainty. Walking down the steps onto the first floor, the exercising couple walked through the dining room into the kitchen. Since the mask had been acknowledged as a must by government officials, they kept their face masks by the kitchen door leading outside, along with the other cleansing essentials. Baby wipes, hand sanitizer, the small rubbing alcohol pad packets. “Should we wear our face mask?” Vimbayi asked as she reached for her mask shoving a number of rubbing alcohol pads into the breast pocket of her Nike Air Dry-Knit athletic top. “Nah, we should be fine.” Damien said, ignoring last night’s nightly news briefing about wearing masks while exercising. Subconsciously, Damien always felt uncomfortable as an African American male heeding to the precautionary measures of wearing a face mask. He felt like he was asking for trouble wearing a mask in a neighborhood where the likelihood of being racially profiled was rather high. With the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, it was proof that Damien’s racial identity as a black male put him at risk of being a suspect of circumstance. “Besides . . .” he added, “. . . I aint tryna be chased and gunned down in front of those million dolla homes for looking suspicious, plus it’s hard to work out and breathe in those things!” In response, Vimbayi inhaled and exhaled deeply shaking her head in a silent way. She agreed in saying, “You got a point about the breathing,” leaving her mask on the kitchen counter. Grabbing her phone, she set her fitness app to count their steps toward the goal of 10,000 steps per day. They walked out into the morning, locking the door behind them.
Livingston Road and Southington Road, Historic Shaker Square District, Cleveland, Ohio
March 31, 2020—6:20a.m.
Walking up Southington, the sky was early and warm. It’s orange and blue colors were inspiring as the light breeze promoted the fresh air to rustle the trailing branches leading up to the high tree top canopy, as Damien and Vimbayi journeyed over the uneven pavement toward Van Aken Boulevard. The green lawns were well-kept and the old towering trees were lush. The birds were chirping and the morning traffic was light, accenting the day's newness as they conversed about the irony of last night’s film Contagion. “I wonder how much of this will play out like the movie?” Vimbayi asked rhetorically. “In the movie it took them two years to find a cure!” she went on. Damien in response said “Was it that long? I don’t think it was that long! We can’t be in quarantine for two years; I don’t even want to think about that!”
There was light north and south bound traffic of assuming them to be essential workers on their morning commute as Damien and Vimbayi scurried across the Rapid Transit Authority’s Blue Line railway, which crossed Van Aken Boulevard. The Blue Rapid transit line holding commuters passed along the tracks that divide the boulevard into the north and south lanes. Coming into the interior of Shaker’s Woodbury Neighborhood, their walk continued to lead them up Southington Road. Getting deeper and deeper into the neighborhood, the houses morphed from Colonial style homes into mini mansion both modern and old with large yards front and back. On their walk, Damien and Vimbayi envied the spring breaking in the emerging perennials and the dandelions of some unkempt lawns of houses that they passed. They courteously maintained the social distancing etiquette as they politely stayed away from on-comers. This new route was active with people walking their dogs, jogging, and biking. There were no signs of blight or destitution like in those other directions.
Walking by the Shaker school complex, up Woodbury Road, their pace quickened with their minds removed from the woes of unemployment and viruses and early childhood education. Shaker Heights was known for its large trees and beautiful and antiqued homes, with large yards and unique designs. On their path they came across a home remodeling project that had just been completed. They slowed down their pace so as to marvel at its structural design and the layout of its landscaping. It was a two-story home, made of brick and stone with a long walkway leading to a screened in porch. There was an automatic sliding gate, with a small fountain that was visible through the natural border made of medium sized shrubbery that concealed the backyard. The front lawn was a deep dark green that had automatic sprinklers with a variety of flowers and foliage set professionally. It also had a natural border smaller sized shrubbery that surrounded the front of the home. There were large windows, where through one of them you could see a fancy chandelier hanging in the middle of winding steps at the entrance. It was a gorgeous home.
Moving along, they were headed back home as the lane curved towards Van Aken Boulevard again. They re-centered their focus on the morning walk which was more than halfway done. All of a sudden Vimbayi got inspired to take a workout selfie on her new phone, so to share with her mother and brothers in England. As they paused to position their faces into the small screen of the camera, a neighborhood jogger ran up behind them. Sweat dripping from his brow, he said in panting breathes “Hey y’all! I can take that picture!” the jogger stopped his stride to come in our direction. As he approached jovial and chipper, Vimbayi couldn’t help but to think of the nightly news report from the evening prior. Passing the friendly neighbor her phone, Vimbayi heard Lester Holt’s voice in her head say, “Exercising without a mask during the pandemic can cause the spread of COVID-19. Due to the droplets of sweat, COVID-19 can linger in the air . . . ” As she passed the phone over to the stranger, her face flushed; the brown of her cheeks turned burgundy red as she folded into Damien’s arms to pose for the picture. Damien posture began to tense due to the jogger’s intrusion, but he went along with it also just to be polite. Before he took the picture, the jogger cleared his throat with a gross and disgusting “haaaaka thoooo,” spitting his phlegm to the ground beneath his feet. “Excuse me,” he said. While he figured out the camera feature, Damien paid attention to his sweatshirt and pants drenched from his laps around Shaker High School. Vimbayi frowned in repulsion as they looked at each other, ready for this experience to be over. His eyes tightened watching the heat waves of condensation rise from his head, imagining it to be COVID-19 seeping from his pores. The jogger’s hair was long, wet and pulled into a ponytail that hung to the bottom of his neck. All Damien could think about was the virus traveling from the joggers infected being to him and his wife. In taking a knee in front of Damien and Vimbayi to position his shot, the jogger thought that the house that Damien and Vimbayi was standing in front of was theirs. “I want to get your beautiful home in the background!” he said repositioning himself at a different angle. The notion of their new makeshift cameraman jogger thinking that the house was theirs changed the body language of Damien and Vimabyi’s face and pose. Finding a good spot, the jogger finally called “Ready. Set. Cheese!” enthusiastically snapping the picture. Looking back at the screen, the shot wasn’t to the jogger’s liking. That’s when the jogger motioned to take another picture. Damien stepped up and insisted that his picture taking time was over. “That will be enough, sir! Thank you.” Damien said firmly. Off guard the jogger sutured his response “Aaaawwwe—you sure? I didn’t get a good view of your home in the picture.” Agitated by his persistence, Damien took the phone out of the jogger’s hands and said, “That’s ok!” again, wiping the phone off with his shirt. Vimbayi recognized the tension in Damien’s action and aura and said, “Thank you, sir, that was so nice of you, but this isn’t our home.” Face blushing, the jogger then said, “Oh no, I’m sorry. How embarrassin’, I should be mindin’ my own bidness ntway. Have a nice day y’all!” he said apologetically proceeding to jog along, as if social distancing wasn’t a thing.
Walking away from the exchange, Damien and Vimbayi realized how much the propaganda around the pandemic has altered the way they interacted with the world. No longer can they be so willing to allow strangers into their personal space, but the idea of face mask and hand sanitizer being items that you can’t leave home without is a concept that should never be taken for granted. “We should get tested ASAP!” Vimbayi's face frowned, wiping her phone down with the antibacterial alcohol pads she stuffed in her pockets at the beginning of the walk. “Calm down. I’m sure we're going to be fine.” Damien said in another attempt in offering empty comfort. “What chu mean—you sure?!” Vimbayi was right and Damien knew it. On the rest of the walk, they both stayed to themselves in their thoughts. It was the uncertainty that stayed in the back of Damien’s mind. He was uncertain about his family’ future. Their healthcare and their children’s education. His family had no income and would soon run out of savings. All he had was his health, his family and his love for writing and with that he knew that this too shall pass.
A community-based poet and writer, D. L. Ware is a literacy advocate and literary artist from southeast Cleveland, Ohio. His poetry is on display throughout the Buckeye Corridor and is a regular teaching artist with Literary Cleveland. Husband and father of three boys, Damien finds the act of writing to be healthy and therapeutic and makes time to write daily.
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