August 10th, 2020
For our second issue, we are proud to display this beautiful Tarot-inspired cover art from Travis Hampton. To see more artwork from Travis, follow him on Instagram @travistyart
A letter from the Editors…
We are now nearly half a year into the global pandemic, and are all experiencing a wide range of emotions. We hope that all of you are hanging in there. These last few months have brought with them many hardships: unemployment, uncertainty clouding public education, loss of loved ones, and the constant battle to correct social injustices.
However, in the midst of all of these life changing, sometimes even life shattering disruptions, we’d like to draw attention to one constant that has helped all of us to make this whole ordeal as bearable as it can possibly be; something that those who endured pandemics before us never had at their disposal: technology.
We have technology! In the days of the Bubonic Plague, nobody knew what germs were or how to stop the spread of disease. During the outbreak of the Spanish Influenza, there was still a great deal of guesswork involved in developing a vaccine, and hospitals were not what they are today. In the present day, we are educated about germs, bacteria, and viruses. We also have access to all kinds of information that will hopefully lead to a breakthrough on the COVID-19 vaccine sooner rather than later. Technology in today’s hospitals is also doing much more to give patients a fighting chance than in any other pandemic. Conditions are better, and today’s technology is saving lives.
In addition to saving lives, technology has become so entwined with our everyday lives, and we must remember not to take it for granted. Thanks to technology we can work from home. We can help minimize crowds and prevent large gatherings by sitting on the couch watching TV, ordering takeout, or using social media. Technology also offers a sense of community that we can’t physically have right now. We can use social media and video calls to stay connected to friends and family, even if they’re on the other side of the world. If we’re ever feeling lonely, someone is always just a message away.
Last but not least, technology provides us with the opportunity to come together, collaborate, and create. We at Crown & Pen are thankful for our technological advancements, and we are thankful for all of you as well. Let us turn to one another in these crazy times, and keep bringing our stories and experiences together. We hope you enjoy this issue, along with future issues to come.
All our best,
Ashton and Nori
This Lockdown Support Tarot spread was generously contributed by the Backyard Banshee. Visit their website at https://backyardbanshee.com/ for private Tarot readings, and follow them on Instagram at @backyardbanshee.
by Kristin Garth
“This curious child was fond of pretending to be two people.
‘But it’s no use now,’ thought Poor Alice, “to pretend to be
two people. Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make
one respectable person.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
You pretend to be friends in starched pinafores
following beasts to inappropriate doors.
Drinking from bottles found on the floor
until you’re too small to be two anymore.
The girl in the dress or girl in the blooms?
You have to choose. There is not enough room
for societal notions, stifling costumes
in holes you huddle to smell dew, perfume
of diurnal expansion of petals in pink.
Dare not imagine what other you thinks
— you unbuttoning clothes, girl on the brink
of wandering nude to a place she’s extinct.
Companions, commandments cast off like dolls.
To enter this meadow, alone you must crawl.
Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of seventeen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press), The Meadow (APEP Publications) and Golden Ticket, forthcoming from Roaring Junior Press. She is the founder of Pink Plastic House: a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website kristingarth.com
by Ashton-Taylor Ackerson
Boxes, boxes everywhere. Some held clothes, others cooking supplies, a few held various knickknacks, and two were at their capacity with bottles of wine. The boxes themselves depicted different labels from bottles one would find at the local grocery store. Spanish, domestic Brut, Prosecco, Rosé, all the assortments that I handled every day in my department. It was convenient to be able to save empty cases from work for moving.
Only three weeks left until freedom. No roommate, no unwanted guests, no more constantly having to guard my stuff, just me and a modest studio apartment. The first of July couldn’t come fast enough.
As I sat cross-legged, sorting through some books scattered on the floor around me, Veronica emerged from her bedroom. I didn’t bother to look up.
She approached a black box with a red label, one that held clothes. She began to rummage through until she had a yellow top in her grasp.
“This one’s cute, you sure you want to pack it so soon?”
“Yes. I have plenty of other tops to get me through the next few weeks.”
“So I guess I can’t borrow it then?”
I set my small stack of books down and turned to look at her.
“No. You can’t borrow it. Now put it back.”
She didn’t move right away, but I continued to stare her down until she finally relented and dropped it back into the box, not bothering to refold it.
“You know Lexi, you don’t have to go.”
“I do. I’ve already signed my new lease.” I replied, turning my attention back to my books.
“I just don’t really know how I’m going to make rent now.”
I shrugged. “Better find a new roommate quick, then.”
I wasn’t sure if Veronica wanted to say more, but she went back to her room and closed the door. There was no way she could guilt trip me, because for that to work I’d have to actually care about her as a person. She had forfeited her chance at a mutually respectful roommate relationship long ago. Veronica would constantly eat my food, borrow my clothes, and ask me to spot her for rent. However, things all came to a head once COVID-19 hit and she was forced to work from home. All of her annoying (and disgusting) habits became magnified as she doubled down as the worst roommate ever. I glanced at the Mount Everest sized pile of dishes in the sink, towering to a point where they were easily visible from the living room. Most of them were Veronica’s, but I’d end up being the one to wash them all if I wanted a clean dish.
I couldn’t even go out to smoke on the balcony anymore because Veronica had let her chihuahua shit all over it, and refused to pick up after her precious Pepe. “He likes his outside time!” She’d always coo. Then why was it that every time she’d put him out, he was immediately whining and crying to come back in? There were days where he would be out there as I got ready for work, and then I would come home in the late evening to find Veronica on the couch, and Pepe still crying to come back inside. I usually had to remind her that Pepe was still outside, and remark that he must be hot out there for so many hours in the grueling Texas heat, but Veronica never took the hint.
I sighed. Just three more weeks. What more could she possibly manage to do in three weeks?
I hustled into the office and dropped my purse into our department’s filing drawer, sifting through papers and snacks for a name tag. I raised an eyebrow at a plastic, yellow Easter egg before shoving it aside. There was no telling how long some of these things had been in there. I definitely needed to declutter at some point, maybe after the move. Finally, a name tag with my name on it surfaced among other trinkets and trash. I darted out to the sales floor.
“So how’s packing coming along?” Charlie, one of our wine vendors, asked me as he stocked bottles on the shelf.
“Not quickly enough. I can’t wait to live alone.” I adjusted my mask, which had begun to slip off of my nose.
Charlie chuckled. “Trust me, I’ve been there.”
“She’s just awful. It’s draining. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and I’d rather be here at work, exposed to all these selfish anti-mask assholes, than spend a minute at home with her.”
“You’ve got this, you’re almost there. Do you want to see what I have for your order so far?”
I nodded. “Show me whatcha got.”
I came home to find that the dishes were once again sky high. Rolling my eyes, I unbagged my takeout and proceeded to bring it to the couch, considering the table was covered with Veronica’s work papers. I peeled the foil off my burrito and took a cheesy bite. Chipotle again, since it didn’t create a single dirty dish.
At least Veronica wasn’t home. I turned on Hulu and played Pen15. When I moved out, I’d need to remember to log Veronica out of all of the streaming services that I paid for: Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.
Barely five minutes into my show, and the front door burst open. Veronica was followed in by a tall, dark-haired guy.
“Hey Lexi! This is Garret. Can we watch TV?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was seriously bringing someone over to our apartment right now, in the middle of a pandemic?
“Uh, I just got home and I’m watching TV while I eat dinner. Can you go to your room or something instead?”
Veronica smiled at Garret mischievously.
“Well, okay then, if you insist.”
The two of them nearly ran to Veronica’s room and slammed the door shut. I could hear their incessant giggling, which quickly devolved into moans and yelps, through the thin walls. I tried to turn up the volume, but as the TV got louder, so did they. I finished my burrito and went to my room to listen to music with some headphones.
My phone buzzed on the nightstand beside me. Still not entirely awake, I reached over to see that my mom was FaceTiming me.
“Hola Mamá, ¿qué tal?”
“Hola mija, did I wake you?”
I sat up in my bed, smoothing out my hair. “Kind of, but that’s okay. I’m off today and was hoping that the longer I stay asleep, the longer I could avoid her.”
“I’m sorry, mija.”
“She keeps bringing people over! It’s like she’s not taking this seriously at all!”
My mother sighed. “I pray every day that you don’t get sick. You already deal with so much at work.” There was worry in her brown eyes, and concern coated her words.
“Me too, but what can I do? Mamá, she’s giving me a headache.”
“Have you tried the egg? Limpia. It will suck out all the bad energy.”
I hoped that I hadn’t rolled my eyes. “Mamá, I told you that I don’t believe in that. Limpia is a myth, eggs can’t really do that.” There was no way that rubbing an uncooked egg around on my forehead would make me feel better, but my abuela had learned it from her abuela, and so my mom had grown up believing it, like it was some kind of magic cure for everything.
My mom gave me a look. It was quite possible that I had actually rolled my eyes without meaning to. “It does work, and you should give it a try.”
“Fine, I’ll ‘give it a try,’ later though.”
“You know what else might make you feel better?”
“What if Abuela makes some empanadas and I bring some to you at work tomorrow?”
I nearly jumped out of bed with excitement. “With yam?”
“Yes please!” I squealed. Abuela’s empanadas definitely did fix everything.
“Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow. Te amo, mami.”
I hung up. If only I could go back to sleep until tomorrow. At least I had something else to look forward to.
It was great seeing my mom at work, even if we couldn’t hug, and although our smiles were concealed by our masks, I could see her smiling at me with her eyes. She left me with over a dozen fresh-baked empanadas, for which I was most grateful. I missed her and Abuela so much, but with my job I didn’t want to put Abuela at risk by visiting them. From what I understood, she had not left the house since quarantine began in March.
I ate nearly half of the empanadas during my lunch break, and brought the rest home so that I could ration them out and have a few for breakfast over the next few days. When I got home, I wrote a note claiming the empanadas as mine, then popped the container in the microwave for safe keeping. “Hey Veronica! Please don’t eat the food in the microwave, it’s mine and I’m saving it!” I called.
“Okay!” A muffled response came from her room.
I decided to take advantage of the unoccupied TV and made myself at home on the couch.
The next morning, all I could think about was how great Abuela’s empanadas would taste with some coffee. I shot out of bed and practically ran to the kitchen.
I was horrified by the sight that greeted me. Veronica was sitting at the table with a skinny, blonde guy, laughing about something. In their hands, they each had a partially eaten empanada.
“What are you eating?” I shouted.
“Oh my god, thank you so much for sharing these, Lexi! Did you make these?”
“They’re really good!” Blondie agreed.
I was livid. “No, my Abuela made them and I told you last night not to eat them! You even said ‘okay!’”
Veronica took another thoughtful bite of the empanada in her hand. I winced.
“I did? When?”
“When I got home from work!”
“I don’t remember that.”
She shrugged and turned back to Blondie, who seemed mostly un-bothered by the situation.
“I even left a note on the container! My Abuela made them special for me! I was going to eat them for breakfast throughout the week!”
Veronica giggled. “Oh Lexi, you know I don’t take time to read notes! Besides, these babies need to be enjoyed fresh, they’re so good!”
I wanted to cry and scream at the same time, but it wouldn’t have done any good. I let out some sort of frustrated noise as I stormed out, saving my tears for the shower.
Another long Saturday at work finally finished. The buying habits of the local alcoholics were unpredictable these days. Sometimes weekends were dead as customers who were now home all the time would shop throughout the week, and other times the aisle was packed. I could never tell which it would be, but I knew that I myself couldn’t wait to have a glass of Chablis when I got upstairs. It had been chilling in the back of the fridge all day, wrapped up in two grocery store bags and hidden behind multiple bottles of condiments. Besides, it was a Saturday night and Veronica was usually out, despite everything going on.
A wave of panic hit me as I parked and saw her blue Honda a few spots away. Maybe she took a friend’s car?
I inched up the stairs and turned the key, bracing myself for whatever I might walk into.
Music that I was unable to hear from outside the door now blared from a speaker. Veronica sat on the couch, two of her friends on either side of her. There was a group of four at the dining table, snacking on cheese balls. Another girl raided the fridge. The room reeked of weed, and everyone had a red solo cup in their hand.
“Are you having a party?” My voice struggled to compete with that of Post Malone as “Candy Paint” filled the room.
“Girl yas! Come join us!” Veronica offered me a blunt, which I waved away.
“You’re seriously passing a blunt around right now. We’re supposed to be social distancing and you’re hosting a fucking smoke circle?”
“Hey, most places are good with less than ten people. I count…” Veronica paused and physically took a head count in front of me, “Eight of us, nine including you. See? We’re good, come chill!”
“No. I just want my wine and then I’m going to my room.” I made a beeline for the fridge. I pushed aside all of the condiments, but my bottle was missing. I couldn’t say I was shocked, but I was definitely dismayed.
One of Veronica’s friends held out a bottle of Nero d’Avola to me. “Here, you said you wanted some wine?”
“Yeah… Let me see?” I gently took the bottle from her hand and inspected it. What a coincidence, I had packed this exact bottle away just last week. “Veronica? What’s in your cups?”
“Just some wine someone left in the fridge. It’s not as sweet as I like, but it’s actually really nice! You should try it!”
I turned to the table where everyone else sat, and found five bottles of my wine popped open, nearly empty at this point. My Chablis among them.
I couldn’t even bring myself to say anything. I set the bottle in my hand down and marched back to the living room. “Veronica, I need to talk to you outside.”
“Can it wait? I’m really vibing with this song right now.”
“I wasn’t asking. Let’s go, now.” In a huff, she followed me out the front door. I wasn’t about to lead her to the minefield that was the balcony.
“Dude, chill. We’re just trying to have some fun.”
“Yeah, at my expense! You have absolutely no respect for my stuff! I come home after a long day of work, ready to treat myself to a drink, and you and your friends just decided to help yourselves instead! Tell me, who else do you possibly think would’ve put that wine in the fridge?”
Veronica shrugged. “I really thought Luke left it here the other night as a nice little surprise.”
“I guess you thought he left a case full of wine in my room as a surprise too? You didn’t just drink the fridge wine, you stole from the rest of my stash! I’d already packed those!”
“Well you always like, hoard it! It’s nice to be a good host and share.”
“I work in beer and wine! You know this is what I want to do for a living, we’ve talked about it! If you want to provide alcohol for your friends, then the least you can do is pay for it yourself. That was a thirty-five dollar bottle of Chablis you drank.”
Veronica’s eyes grew wide. “You paid that much for wine?”
“Well, no, I got it on sale, but that’s what it’s worth.”
Veronica swatted my shoulder in a playful manner that dismissed everything I had just said. “Well then what are you getting upset about! It’s not like you actually ‘paid’ that much for it then, so chill out! I’ll share some weed with you, then we can be even, okay?”
She was truly unbelievable.
“No! Don’t you get it? I don’t want your nasty corona blunt! You’re not doing anything to take precautions and frankly, I think it’s selfish and gross. You have no business inviting all your friends here, because you’re not only exposing yourself, you’re exposing me too. You’re going to end up bringing this virus into our apartment.”
Veronica rolled her eyes, tossing her long, brown hair as she did so.
“I disagree. The chances of getting it are really low, I think the media is just trying to scare us.”
“This is insane. All I can say is that I’m so glad that I’ve only got another week and a half left here with your ignorant ass.”
With that, I threw the door open, grabbed a wine glass from a cabinet, took what remained of my bottles of wine, and holed up in my room for the rest of the night. At one point I heard Veronica call out “Come on, don’t be like that,” but I ignored her. In my lifetime, I’d read so many stories on the internet about horrible roommates, and up until this point I’d thought that there was no way someone could be so unbelievably rude. I understood all too well now.
Six days left in this hellhole. I was eagerly counting down the days until I never had to see Veronica ever again. In my last few days I made sure not to leave any special food or beverages unattended in the communal space. If I had leftovers, I had until the end of the night to eat them. If I wanted a cold drink, I would pop it in the freezer when I got home and not drop my guard until it was in front of me once again. I didn’t understand. It was like Veronica decided that everything was just a free-for-all after she learned that I was moving out. She had always been shitty, but never like this. Thankfully, she was away for the night. As I munched on some noodles, my phone rang. It was Charlie, my wine vendor. What did he want this late in the evening?
“Hey Charlie, what’s up?”
“Hi Lexi. I just wanted to let you know, from one friend to another, that I’m going to be off for the next two weeks. I uh… Got a little case of the COVID.”
I audibly gasped. “No! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just pissed that I’m going to be stuck at home for so long. My symptoms aren’t too bad, I’m just a bit congested. I went to the doctor because I thought I had a sinus infection, but they told me they wanted to go ahead and test me. I couldn’t believe it when it came back positive.”
“Oh my god. Well, I’m glad that you’re hanging in there alright, yeah just focus on getting better.”
“And don’t worry, my boss will get with you on an order next week. I was in your store yesterday so I worked everything to the shelves and wrote your order for Friday. I guess a vacation will be nice.”
“Yeah, way to think positive. Please take care of yourself, okay?”
“I’ll get plenty of rest, I promise. Well, I just wanted to let you know. I won’t keep you.”
“Alright, I hope you have a speedy recovery. See you in two weeks.” Sympathy and fear tangled in my gut and I felt numb. Sure, I’d been notified about a few cases at my store, but this was the first time that somebody I knew had fallen victim to the virus. Charlie seemed to be in good spirits, but would he really be okay?
The doorknob turned and Veronica now stood in the living room.
“What a night! Girl, you should’ve seen the size of this dude’s dick. It was like a work of art!”
Not even bothering to process what she’d said, I shot up out of my chair.
“What are you wearing?”
“What, this?” She gestured to her pink top. “It’s not yours, I promise. Jenna lent it to me.”
“No, not the top. What’s on your face?”
“A mask? They’re requiring them everywhere now, you know that.”
I was inches away from her face now, distancing be damned.
“That’s my mask! Holy shit, why are you wearing one of my masks?”
“Oh! Well you see, I just needed one to go out tonight and pregame with Jenna and Laura before my date, and I never bothered to buy one because you have so many. I didn’t think it would matter if I borrow one every so often. You just now noticed?”
“Oh my god, how many times have you done this?”
“Only a few times. Don’t worry, I always spray them before I use them. That disinfects them.”
I wanted to throw up. “This is the nastiest thing you’ve ever done! Spray only goes so far, that’s why I wash my cloth masks on hot in the washing machine, with sanitizing detergent! I cannot believe that I’ve had your spit and snot pressed up against my face every day for all this time! You’re not even careful! You could be a carrier of the virus and not even know it, and now I could have it too!” I felt tears sting the corners of my eyes. I let them fall, I was too angry to care. “Why are you like this?”
“I already told you, this whole thing is probably a hoax anyway. I only wear a mask because I have to, so it’s not like I’m gonna go out and waste money on one. There’s no need to cry, you’re not going to get it. I know you won’t. You’re healthy.”
“You’re going to get it.” I spat. “And when you do, I bet you’re really going to regret this careless attitude of yours.” I turned away from her and headed for the room that was only mine for a few more days.
“Don’t you want your mask back?”
“Just keep it!” I screeched. All I could think about was scrubbing every inch of my face until it bled.
The next day was slow at work. A customer would meander through every so often, but I was mostly alone. Trying to keep busy, I began pulling up bottles to make the department look presentable. I was halfway through the Cabernet section when I froze, now face to face with one of the wines from Charlie’s company. I recoiled as if the bottles in front of me were a venomous snake about to strike. Charlie had just been in the store yesterday. He had touched all of his product, meticulously working the shelves. How long could coronavirus live on a glass surface? I whipped out my phone. According to Google, about five days. No thanks.
I washed my hands on my way to the office. Once there, I opened the beer and wine drawer to see if my manager kept any sanitation wipes or sprays on hand. I was going to disinfect every one of Charlie’s bottles before I did anything else.
As I continued my search, the yellow Easter egg rattled around amongst the hoard we had accumulated. I picked it up and opened it, empty. I remembered now. One of the other department managers had given me the egg as a treat on Easter weekend. It had miniature Reese’s cups inside, which I’d eaten that same day. I wasn’t sure why I’d held on to the plastic shell, but I guess at the time I just couldn’t bring myself to throw it away for some reason. Pastel yellow with mint green stripes. It was pleasing to look at.
I pulled my phone out again, asking Google how long coronavirus could last on a plastic surface. The answer was the same, about five days.
I took the egg back to the department with me, stopping for multiple pairs of plastic gloves and a plastic bag along the way. After double gloving my hands, I rubbed that Easter egg on every bottle that I thought Charlie may have even possibly touched. Up and down the aisles I went. I even went back to the wareroom and rubbed the egg against cases from his company. Then I opened each of those cases, and rubbed the egg against every bottle inside. Once I was satisfied, I carefully placed the piece of plastic inside the bag and zipped it up, then I ran to go wash my hands again.
Once again, Veronica wasn’t home when I arrived. I took this opportunity to take my prized egg and rub it over every inch of her bedroom and bathroom. Every surface that I was sure she would touch. Doorknobs, pillowcase, phone charger, toothbrush, faucets, the works. When I was finished, I left the egg on her nightstand in hopes that she might directly pick it up and be further exposed. I made sure to wipe my gloved hands on more items as I made my way out. I’d have to be careful and wash my hands more often for the next few days, but I hoped that it would be worth it.
Veronica came home with one of her girlfriends, wearing another of my masks. “Hey boo, how’re you?”
“Great, actually.” I smiled at both of them before scurrying off to my room.
“I still wish you weren’t leaving, I’m going to miss you.”
The last of my belongings were packed and downstairs. Veronica and I were saying our goodbyes.
“Yeah, well, I’m sure your next roommate will be much cooler than me.”
“You’re just so nice all the time! Come here, give me a hug!”
“With everything going on, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Bye.” She didn’t put her arms down until I was halfway down the stairs.
I hopped into my Jeep and let out an excited scream. Finally! After thirteen long months, Veronica was out of my life! I could finally live the way that I wanted to, without worrying about who was coming over or where my stuff would end up. Freedom at last!
“I just hope she likes her parting gift.” I mused.
After settling into my new apartment, I took it upon myself to go get tested. It meant taking a few days off of work, but I knew it would be worth it. I could tell that my manager was annoyed that this happened to fall over the Fourth of July weekend, one of our busiest holidays, but health comes first.
I finally got the call that my test results came back negative. I didn’t know how, but I was relieved. I checked Facebook, searching Veronica’s name. I had waited to block her, because I was dying to know if my plan had worked. It turned out that I had missed an update posted a day ago:
Just got my test results back. They were positive 😦 idk what I’m gonna do but if we’ve hung out recently, you might want to go get tested too. I’m scared. It’s hard to breathe rn and I hope I don’t end up in the hospital. I’m sorry I didn’t believe it was real, but now I just want to recover quickly so I can get back to normal. Could really use some good vibes right now.
I opened a bottle to celebrate. Limpia. I was clean of her at last.
Ashton-Taylor Ackerson is the co-founder and editor of Crown & Pen. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin, and writes poetry and fiction. This is her second publication with Crown & Pen. She is currently working on her first poetry collection, which she hopes to publish after quarantine. When she’s not writing, Ashton-Taylor is always on the lookout for the best food, wine, and beer to be had in Austin. Follow her on Instagram @ashtonalopolii.
How to Survive a Plague
by Nori Rose Hubert
Love thy neighbor
By wearing a mask
Keeping your distance
Washing your hands
Sharing what you can (we all have something to give)
Answering the knock, should it come to your door
Learn to fight for their lives (and your own)
With your fists, with your words, with your hope
By baking your grandmother’s bread
Taken from her hand-written recipe book
Find stationary adorned with peacock feathers, butterfly wings, and orange roses
Learn (or relearn) how to pick up a pen
And tell your friends and family how much you love them
Cocoon yourself at home and prepare to melt
Into the transformation
(your own, and the world’s)
But remember to go outside
And stand in the sun with your feet touching the earth
Cry in the shower
Let the grief move through you
Keen and thrash and wail
Remember that from decaying stumps grow green forests
Love the world
By believing in a future
Where empires crumble into dust from whence they came
Cages open and borders dissolve
Forests and oceans heal
Where greed does not pay
Where there is no room for hate
Where the village returns
And we remember who we are
Nori Rose Hubert is the co-founder and editor of Crown & Pen. She holds an AA in Creative Writing from Austin Community College and a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Dreaming Hour, and her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Rio Review, Feminine Inquiry, Musings of a #LonelyFeminist, Hothouse, and online in Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Corvid Queen, The Elephant Ladder, Mookychick, The Freque, and is forthcoming in the digital feminist anthology The Medusa Project. She is a regular contributor to the Work & Bipolar or Depression column at HealthyPlace Mental Health, and works a freelance healthcare writer specializing in the areas of mental health, sexual wellness, harm reduction, and death care. She is a lifelong Texan and divides her time between Austin and Dallas, sharing a home with her husband, three rescue cats, a blue tongue skink, a part-time dog, and several colorful aquarium fish. She believes in magic, stories, and you. Connect with her on Tumblr and Instagram + Twitter @norirosewrites.
Flu to Shining Flu
by Connor Bixby
I woke up in the middle of the night on a narrow bed, wondering whether I was in hell, albeit a freezing, arctic hell where I was concurrently shivering and sweating, I had to fight off Looney Tune darkness in my eyes. I was strangely 75% numb and 25% in excruciating pain.
I looked to my right and I saw an IV connected to my vein. Because I’m clinically afraid of needles, veins, and blood, I immediately fainted back into unconsciousness.
When I woke up again, I noticed people young and old being rushed in and out of the same open room, people crying, people dying, people blankly watching a TV with news in Chinese.
I thought about what could have put a relatively healthy person into this rapid downward spiral – my guess was food poisoning by night market kimchi chicken curry, but no one in the hospital could give me answers. Whatever the case, I was given a boatload of medicine upon leaving, and the drugs and hospital bill added up to a staggering 12 USD.
The ER visit combined with the endless throwing up, violent flu-like symptoms, and deliria that had necessitated my visit to the hospital in the first place, left me with a much weaker immune system. I was given an absurd list of dietary restrictions that rendered me starving and decaffeinated, and when combined with the medicine I was taking, which came in little packets with descriptions in Chinese, English, and smiley faces next to clocks, I was nothing but a sick zombie.
I went back to my prototypical 9:00 to 6:00 job in my prototypical oppressive 1950s-style Taiwanese office, but I was about 50% of my normal self. I could barely focus and had little energy, so I had to take a ton of unpaid sick leave in a job that I already made very little doing.
My work contract was coming to an end in a few months, and although my boss eagerly wanted me to return (because they had struggled to find any competent foreign writer stupid enough to do a job that required twice as many hours and yet offered less pay than teaching English), I just couldn’t handle the work environment. Sitting at a desk as the only foreigner in an otherwise all-Taiwanese office for nine breakless, silent, freezing or sweating hours – half of which were spent pretending to work – would make my condition worse. As much as I liked my coworkers and my manager, signing up for another year of this would be foolish.
The thought of having a finish line put me in better spirits, but the week after leaving the ER, I got a runny nose which turned into a minor cold, which turned into terrible bronchitis-like coughing with phlegm, which turned into a respiratory infection, which turned into I-have-no-idea, but my body was failing again.
I visited almost every doctor on the island: regular Taiwanese doctors, Western doctors, Chinese medicine doctors, acupuncturists, ENTs, virologists, infectious disease specialists. Each of them had a very different prescription for my ailments, and in both their native language and my native language, I could tell that they had no clue what the problem was.
It became apparent that these might be my last three months in Taiwan. If this disease was chronic, I might have to return to America soon. I didn’t want that – living as a foreigner in Taiwan forever would be optimal, but I didn’t want to be stuck in a foreign country if this thing wasn’t going away.
During this time, I decided to spend some quality time with the few expat and local friends I had. In spite of my body’s limitations, I joined them in going out to bars and clubs three or four nights a week, and I started spending liberally even though I was basically pulling in minimum wage. My phone was awful, so I went to the Apple Store and told them to give me the most expensive new iPhone they had, with the largest possible storage, but to not give themselves credit or take a commission for upselling because I selected on my own accord the best phone I could buy just to say that I did so. I purchased some tightfitting shirts and a pair of skinny jeans, imported shampoo for sensitive skin, juices infused with Chinese herbs, and an electric toothbrush. I was also seeing a very expensive psychiatrist to complain about my life. But the credit card debt didn’t matter; I was undoubtedly going to die soon. Why not just make the most of my time here in Taiwan, and on earth?
The timing of this condition was hard to swallow because I had just finished the most fruitful year of my life. In fact, I went overseas because I wanted to produce something, to turn into a creator and artist, and I did just that. I became a professional writer, I wrote a book, I became a stand-up comedian and an expert storyteller, each infusing the voice that was gradually turning into a rather interesting persona.
I was constantly working on things. The Taiwanese Book Expo is held annually in Taipei, right next to Taipei 101. I had just gone through the challenge of publishing my first book for this event. It was surreal seeing my book of short stories on the shelves: explaining its contents to interested customers and cute intrigued girls, selling it to buyers who didn’t know what they were getting into, signing it with my newly donned pen name and a ridiculous inspirational message. I got to sit on a stage with other authors – that’s what I was now? – answering crowd questions about my tales and my writing habits into a microphone.
I think the pressure of continuously generating stories took a lot out of me. I had spent about a year and a half inside of my tiny windowless studio that consisted of only a bed and a small desk, almost completely losing contact with my friends and the outside world in general, in order to produce produce produce. I had a strict routine – work from 9:00 to 6:00, go to a coffee shop for three more hours to work on stories or material. Prepare for writing meetings every two weeks. Prepare material for standup comedy every week. Work on stories for storytelling events every few weeks. Because I started making a name for myself in all of this, I was asked to perform at other special shows, and I was asked to submit writing to other books and magazines.
It was strange that, after just getting accustomed to the strictly self-limiting, disciplined lifestyle of a writer, after finally accomplishing the goal of abruptly disappearing from corporate America and moving to Asia to find a voice, I developed a condition which ironically made me lose my actual voice.
My voice, when sound did register and when not stuck in a coughing fit, was a lower pitch than I’d ever been able to reach before. I sounded like a cartoon villain where it was obvious that some voice actor was talking normally into a microphone and then the sound was distorted in post-production to simulate a monster’s voice. Some of my friends were worried that I was contagious, and in shows involving a microphone, no one wanted to go up after me. I couldn’t perform at events anymore, and because I didn’t feel well, I neglected all of my creative habits. Maybe in some ways my lifestyle had led to this disease, or had made the situation linger. It was time for a break so I could recuperate.
The weeks extended into a month, and no matter what conflicting medicine I was taking from different doctors, nothing was making me better.
I figured I might as well start dating because if I didn’t die, it would be nice to have someone there by my side instead of living a lonely existence in which the focus was 110% myself. Writing was my relationship for the past year and a half. With a human relationship, I would have to sacrifice some of the time and energy previously devoted to personal projects. I felt it was necessary, and just as I knew what it really took to manufacture a work of art, I knew what it took to find the perfect mate – persistence and a million dating apps.
I downloaded traditional dating apps and even some Taiwanese apps, created similar accounts each mentioning my status on the island as a performer, writer, and intermediate Chinese speaker, as if those things really mattered, and I began swiping right.
Slowly but surely, I got a match with one app, then another, then another. Since I had little time to dilly dally, I aimed to maximize the speed to in-person interaction. However, many girls in Taiwan are shy and prefer to chat first, so I needed to balance friendly chats with directness. It would take some work to go on as many dates as humanly possible for a period of time, with the hopes of maximizing the chance of landing across The One.
It was slow at the start, and there was some hesitation on the part of interested parties. I tried to explain that I wasn’t looking for a hookup; I just thought talking in a digital chat window on a screen had much less meaning than an in-person conversation where we could read each other’s facial expressions and experience any existent chemistry, but it was a tough sell.
Finally, I set up my first date. Then, I set up another days later.
Things grew exponentially – I went on second and third dates with two or three girls, and in the background my other right swipes were leading to additional first dates. Arranging dates in my increasingly packed schedule was becoming a job in itself. Well, that and going to appointments. After a day of no-frills work as editor/writer, moonlighting as a dying patient and eligible bachelor was at least eventful.
In one week – possibly the craziest week of my Taiwanese and global life – I went to six appointments and twelve dates. One Saturday, I went on three dates consecutively. I remember that day vividly – the first date went well, but its terminus was the exact meeting point I had arranged with the second girl. Goodbye with the first girl was quick because I was afraid of being seen by the next one. For the second date, we ended up walking down Yongkang Street – a popular tourist area in Taipei – and getting bubble tea, then we walked through Da’an Park, a very popular hangout place. For the third date, the girl asked that we go to Yongkang Street because there was a bubble tea shop she wanted to take me to. There are about twenty bubble tea shops on that street, and wouldn’t you know, she took me to the exact same shop I took the other girl just an hour or so ago. I tried something new the second time around. Hopefully the employees didn’t think I was an evil person. Then we sipped our drinks and walked to Da’an Park.
On future back-to-back (-to-back) occasions, I got better at making sure there was already a goodbye factored and a bit of a buffer in terms of the meeting spot, assuring no crossed paths of any involved parties and no shared tracks with previous dates. I felt like an event planner or something. This was obviously risky and felt unsustainable, but my expat friends loved hearing my stories of close calls and experiences with new girls, and about all the gizmos that the new doctor would stick up my nose or throat or into my chest, and about all the ridiculous new medicine I was taking (like the sweet brown opium syrup that is prescribed in Taiwan for majority of health issues).
Life was one big speed-date, and it was stressful and required a lot of attention to detail. Once I talked with a girl about the popcorn and churros that we had eaten while watching Blade Runner 2049…but that was a different girl. Another time, I called a girl by the wrong name. This behavior was reckless.
Yet in spite of all this work I was putting into my life, not much changed. Almost two months into this new drugged-up, voice on voice off, 75% version of me, my health had not progressed. I met some interesting women, but no one who gave me “that feeling.” Maybe I was naïve in thinking that I’d just know. Maybe I’d need more time with the same people to see where things went.
Companionship. I found myself using this word a lot to describe what I was looking for.
My previous relationship was a beautiful thing at first, and for the first time in my extremely independent life, the topic of marriage was broached. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I thought that we weren’t a perfect match to be together forever. I respected her, but I just couldn’t see her as anything but a friend. She was in China, and one of the reasons I came to Taiwan was to escape the confusion of having to deal with an ultimatum that she had given – marriage or bust.
I felt bad that something I moved overseas for, and something that we both put a lot of time and effort into did not work out like we had planned. But I looked wistfully upon the feeling of companionship that I shared with her. I truly felt like she was always there for me, always supportive. Her family made me feel like a family member, and we lived together for a year. That’s the closest I’d ever been to marriage by far, and I wanted to get to that point again, just with the right fit this time.
A long-term relationship was the ultimate goal, but hookup opportunities presented themselves along the way. I felt pressured by the world, by my guy friends, by girls themselves to give in and “be the man” in a couple of situations, but I hated myself for it. I was garnering more attention from women than I’d ever attracted in my modest, shy, mostly single life, and I was getting a chance to bank on my newly formed creative laurels and show off my intermediate-level Chinese. Yet I had to fight off the desire to be liked and succumb to my short-term desires. I was flattered that a few attractive Taiwanese women wanted that kind of thing with me, but what I sought was multiple-night companionship.
In all these dates, I kind of developed this “pipeline” of women, and I felt for the first time in my life that I had many different options. I subconsciously made a list, like the kind you make when you’re looking for apartments in a hot rental area. I was juggling complicated variables like the girls’ feelings toward me, mine toward them, other potential suitors, and I essentially had a “top choice” in mind at a given time. The list would sort of rotate around, and occasionally a new one would overtake the top. I felt terrible for ranking real human beings in such a way, but I couldn’t help it. The reality was, even if I really liked a girl, she might reject me or act cold to me, or maybe another one I was not highly keen on was super into me. It was a complex game, one that I started to think could only end in a loss.
For a few days, I actually thought that the female track was just too overwhelming, and maybe I was interested in men instead, or maybe I liked both. So I added men to my Bumble and had surprisingly excellent luck matching with guys, but I felt really weird initiating a conversation. There was one match that chatted with me, and he asked for my Line. We had good talks, and he scheduled a date but I was half-busy and half-backed out because I was too scared.
But in the midst of this whirlwind of girls and now potentially guys, I came across a Taiwanese girl whose English name was Tessa. She was one of those that I put extra thumb force into swiping right on my phone screen, if you know what I mean. I felt that everything else in my life at that time – sickness, dates, stories – was so trivial compared to a meaningful relationship with the right person.
A few hours later, I received a notification: “You have a new match!” It was Tessa.
Effort. Energy. There are certain people in life you really consider worth investing your mental and physical fortitude in. You know who they are. They’re worth extra care, patience, and tenderness. Their texts are worth a rapid response, their complaints are worth careful deliberation, their favorite animal is worth making note of for future use.
I guess we all have different forms of “mate” in our minds, and Tessa is that for me. She is stunningly beautiful, both in appearance and in personality. She has great fashion sense. She is pragmatic and highly intelligent. She is a professional swing dancer whose moves make me want to cry. She likes trying new things. She previously dated two women. She’s ridiculously good at picking restaurants (and really good at showing her disapproval when I pick good-but-not-great restaurants). She has a fantastic sense of humor. She has an angelic laugh and a textbook smile. Her movements and actions are attractive. The way she talks to herself and complains is cute. She has a terrible sense of direction. She is determined and has a work ethic I’ve never seen before – she works overtime, then goes home and does more work. She can fall asleep while sitting upright in a crowded bus driving through the mountains. We have the same taste in movies and happen to like the same Taiwanese indie band. We are alike in many respects, and we contrast in the areas where I want my partner to serve as my opposite: she is the patience to my impatience. She is the reason to my irrationality. She is the balanced levelheadedness to my wild neuroses. Some of her imperfections – occasional negativity, laziness, and stubbornness, offer me a chance to counter her with positivity, encouragement, and humility, improving some of my own deficiencies.
She deserved my utmost attention, respect, effort, and energy.
However, owing to a diet of cold noodles and raw vegetables, a constant stream of pills with various side effects, and an immune system that was down in the doldrums for months, effort and energy were the precise things I was constantly struggling with. I wasn’t sleeping. I was lethargic. Participation in the psychotic game of doctors and dates required me to run on fumes.
When Tessa and I started dating, she became the focus. I deleted all of the dating apps, stopped going to the doctors’ appointments, and stopped taking medicine (nothing was working anyway). I stopped constantly going out with my friends, and I made it a goal to recover into the best version of myself so that I could give her due care.
This could not be a halfhearted endeavor. I felt an immense burden from the beginning, an immediate sense of responsibility. I needed to shape up. I needed to be a proper boyfriend, and maybe a fiancé, a husband. I needed to find a proper job for the first time. I needed to stop being a wandering foreigner. I needed to become We. We.
From the start, we dealt with challenges. It’s already a challenge being in a relationship with someone who is from another culture, whose English is not fantastic, and who is really focused on her career.
I think we both knew from the get-go that what we were in was a serious relationship, and it would require a certain commitment on both of our parts. We’d need to support each other both personally and professionally.
I had a month or so left until my job ended, and I still didn’t think it wise to continue, but now I was thinking in terms of Us and not Me, and it was tough to get used to.
I finished out my final Taiwanese workplace days, and decided to just be a Chinese student for the summer. The idea was that only attending a couple hours of class a day would give me more rest time, improve a skill that I might be able to use to stay on the island in some other form of employment, and focus much of my time on being a good boyfriend. So that was how we spent our first summer.
We would meet for late dinner – she got out of work so late that sometimes I’d need to eat a pre-dinner before meeting her. We went on bike rides and mountain hikes in the stifling humidity. We played tourists for a day, then did our work in coffee shops as locals the next. We squabbled over the amount of shots necessary to produce a single selfie which passed her standards. We laughed about the ridiculous old-person idioms I was learning at school and practicing with her. We celebrated holidays with her friendly family. I joined her and her friends for hotpot and Japanese food. She joined me and my friends for storytelling events and board games. I waited and pretended to not be bored while she shopped for hours on end. We went on runs, complained about the heat, and ate mango ice.
I fondly remember riding a scooter white-knuckled through the windy, narrow mountain roads in the evening to see the stunning sunset at Thousand Island Lake, then driving back in the dark, happy as could be that I had precious cargo holding on to my torso, and equally happy when we arrived back home safe and sound.
Although my Chinese improved and we could communicate better with each other, it was hard to be a good boyfriend with no job. Later in the summer, money became an issue when we went out to eat and talked about taking a trip. I didn’t want that kind of tension. Buying her gifts with a credit card was also not ideal. So I started to look for a new job.
And in the middle of all this – I was so engrossed in my amazing new girlfriend that I forgot I was sick. And I didn’t even notice that I was getting better. After six ridiculously long months, I was fully recovered. I’ll give Tessa credit for that. But what in the world was it? A prolonged flu? Allergies? Immune issues? A virus? An infection? Would it come back? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to dwell.
In Taiwan, there are few jobs for foreigners besides teaching English to kids, which are a dime a dozen. I already went down that route in China, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life, so I was looking to avoid anything related to teaching. I got creative and looked into all sorts of things. In the end, I ended up tutoring and teaching English because it was all that I could find.
As I said before, being with Tessa made me feel a sense of obligation. I owed it to her to find a stable career so we could enjoy our lives together and I could take care of her.
When I moved away from America, I shed my American skin. I gave up the world of finance and hadn’t even thought of it in years, but after seeing the limited options I had in Taiwan, I decided to get back into finance. I signed up for the Level II CFA test that I had utterly neglected in Asia, because Tessa made me recognize the value in being a foreigner with a unique combination of skills that I could work with in obtaining a job. The problem was that in Taiwan, there’s really no finance jobs for foreigners unless they have about thirty years of experience and speak impeccable Mandarin.
So I started applying for things in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and eventually America, and I did land some interviews. It was weird to be considering these other positions when still in the early stages of something so beautiful in Taiwan, and Taiwan was the one place in the world I wanted to be. It was my home, I loved its people and its scenery, but why did the job situation in the country have to be this way?
I assured Tessa that no matter what happened, I would not accept any offer or move until we talked about it together. If she was interested in moving, then I would consider it. If she was not able or willing to move to another country, then I would decline, no questions asked.
Finding careers in the same place was our first major challenge.
Because I was studying for the CFA, I wanted to find a job that had a lot of free time, and I found one – a magazine writing position that only required fifteen hours of office time a week, but that paid full-time salary. I accepted, and it was perfect for studying, interviewing, and doing other professional things on the side.
Although I accepted the job only with the intention of staying temporarily, I liked it so much that I never wanted to leave. I wished I had found this job years before instead of struggling for long hours.
After a couple of months of stability, I felt like I was finally arriving in Taiwan. Of course, life couldn’t really start until I was finished with the grueling CFA exam. I was constantly studying in coffee shops and at home. Similarly, Tessa was going through a crazy period at her job where she was working about twelve hours a day. I looked forward to June, when my test would end and she would be less busy. That was when our lives could finally start. We could travel, unimpeded by work or the constant need to review complicated formulas. We could eat at restaurants, enjoy holidays together, and finally be a normal couple.
Our challenge was getting through this six month period of tirelessly working, making it through to the source of light at the end of the tunnel.
I periodically had interviews, but I didn’t really want any changes at the moment.
We did have some of the best times of our lives on occasional weekends. We traveled to the middle of Taiwan, went to movies, celebrated holidays. We had glimpses of relationship normalcy, but they were few and far between.
In the time we were together, we started talking about marriage, and I no longer felt scared broaching the subject. In fact, strangely it was me who brought up the thought of being together forever, and she was the one who needed to do the considering.
For Chinese New Year, we had our first big vacation together: she flew with me to visit America. I got to show her a little about me, and I got to see how she operated when surrounded by my crazy family. They loved her, and I was ecstatic to see her shine in front of them. We also had the chance to go on a little trip together in Asheville, North Carolina. Overall, it was a pleasant experience.
When we returned to Taiwan, it was back to the grind.
There was a significant delay in getting my work documentation in order, and for months, I took frequent trips to the National Immigration Office or the Insurance Bureau in my spare time. Just days after finally getting my newly printed insurance card, which meant I was one step closer to permanence with my lady in Taiwan, I received an email.
It was a company in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’d done some remote work with when I first moved to Taiwan. At that time, they actually wanted me to come to Mountain View for a full-time job, but I said no. I had just gotten to the island and was exploring the freelancing route, studying Chinese, and getting involved in a writing group. There was so much more to do, so even though it seemed kind of dumb to pass up on a company giving an offer to a person who’d spent about two years in Asia doing nothing business-related, the timing wasn’t going to work.
April of 2019 was a time when I wanted zero distractions. My test was in two months, and I was taking practice tests and going over the most complicated parts of my upcoming exam. I wanted a life of solitude and no distractions, and I got a freaking job offer on the other side of the world.
They wanted me to start soon.
The timing was both terrible and perfect. Yes, the test was coming up. Yes, if I moved back, we’d be apart for a long time and would not get to enjoy the summer we looked forward to having together, but we had been talking about marriage, kids, a house, etc. – things that required a more stable professional footing. My job in Taiwan was great in terms of flexibility, but it didn’t really offer career progression. The job in America had actual training, benefits, legitimate professional challenges, and a known career path.
If I accepted the job offer, our lives were going to get much more complicated. Marriage would be a more difficult issue. There were a billion factors to consider, factors that made focusing on my exam almost impossible.
This job thing was lingering in the background, and I needed to let the company know soon. After talking things over with my girlfriend, we decided that in order to entice us to go through all the necessary changes and logistics of moving to America and applying for a visa and having her emigrate and immigrate, the pay would need to be higher. I figured this would be a sticking point, and I secretly hoped the buck would stop here so I could continue focusing on my test and on our life in Taiwan. Much to my surprise, the company responded with a respectably higher offer. After talking with Tessa once again, we decided that it was just too good to say no to, and I accepted under the condition that I start the week after my exam. Thus, the summer we’d been looking forward to spending together would never arrive, at least not this year.
We would have to be apart for a long period of time – I would go there first, then we’d apply for a fiancé visa for her to come to America and get married and live and work legally. That process would require a significant investment of time, money, complicated paperwork, and waiting for the governments’ not-so-speedy response on many different steps. We expected it to take about nine months between application time and the time she would arrive in America. Then after quickly getting married within three months of her arrival (required by law for her to obtain that visa), she’d have to apply for a green card and wait God knows how long to work, maybe another six months or a year or more. I pictured this bureaucratic process where we wait and wait for things to happen, in the most expensive area in the US. What if she misses home, what if she has trouble adapting, what about having a baby? It could be years by the time we were together in the same place with jobs – a place that we were already at in Taiwan for no cost and no waiting.
Yes, it would be a step up for me professionally – I’d never had the chance to work a career-like job at a good company since graduating from a mediocre school with a BS in finance in the midst of the Great Recession a decade prior, and she was always overworked and underappreciated by her managers. By going to America, my career path would improve, and once she finally got to America and we made it through the visa process, her path would likely improve as well. Her background is in tech, and there are plenty of tech jobs to be had in the Bay Area. Some of her Taiwanese friends were already in California, working at good companies.
We saw that this could improve both of our lives in the long run, but even though I accepted, I wavered afterwards. Every day, I thought of a different reason why I shouldn’t go. I was so scared to leave her. There were so many uncertainties, things we didn’t have control over. The visa was pretty crazy – once accepted, she’d have to abruptly leave her life in Taiwan and move to America, and to keep the right to remain a resident, she’d need to stay in America long term. What if it wasn’t what she wanted? What if she didn’t like it? What if she had trouble fitting in or finding a job? What if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t want to give up my awesome job in Taiwan? What if I didn’t want to leave the country that I loved, the country where I finally felt I could be myself?
I probably made her go crazy over my own craziness – repeating over and over again the pros and cons of going back, constantly switching between yes and no.
Our new challenge was preparing for this new step in our lives.
Knowing that we were going to be apart soon, and the ensuing effort we’d need to put into the marriage process that was no longer done purely out of love but now was also a legal necessity, caused a great deal of tension in our relationship.
We went on a trip to Japan to see the flowers blossom at the end of April, and I must say, with the test coming up, the stress of traveling, and the worry about our future situation, I did not handle myself well. There were some enjoyable moments, but we also had one or two of our worst arguments. When we got back, we had a few more quarrels. Were things falling apart? Would we actually make it to marriage? Would I still go back if we broke up? This thing, this offer that was such a good event in our lives, that represented our ability to be together forever, was the thing that was ruining our relationship.
At certain moments I genuinely questioned if we would pull through. What got us through was doing things as a team. I knew that if I did a better job of listening to her, working together, and understanding her perspectives on this whole move and marriage ordeal, we would end up okay.
Two months after accepting the job, my CFA exam date arrived. Still, on that important day, I couldn’t stop the broken record about Taiwan vs. America in my mind. I had to work extra hard in the afternoon portion of the exam to focus only on the test questions and not on the questions in my head.
The night after I took the test, we went to a fancy steak restaurant to celebrate, but it was so hard to celebrate when I knew in three days, we would be apart. I didn’t have the stomach to finish my ribeye.
I vacillated with my Taiwanese company, telling them that I didn’t really want to leave, and they told me they would love for me to stay. Why was I still thinking about this?
I forced myself to walk out of work, one of the first jobs I ever loved, without crying. It took all of my might to stop myself from shouting out “I’ll stay!” to my boss.
Tessa and I had an emotional goodbye the morning I had to leave, then she had to go to work.
But in my confusion and sadness, I locked myself out and needed her to come by and open the door for me, or I’d miss my flight.
She came back, and because I was going to be late, we took an Uber to the airport together. It was an Uber of tears and tension.
We had some time together at the airport – why did we have to go through this torture together? It was originally going to be me, but because of my stupidity, we were spending our last hour sadly drinking tea at the airport. I was 90% sure I would not get on the flight. I was 80% sure I’d talk to my Taiwanese company and tell them not to cancel my documents because I was coming back. I don’t know how I could possibly do this.
It was time to board. For the first time in our eventful year and a half together, I didn’t know what to do or how to act. She was my rock, but she was bawling, and I wanted to support her, but she was behind the security barrier, and I was actually going through with this – was I? Why were my feet taking me away from her, toward the plane, toward America, away from the woman I loved, away from the island that was home, away from everything I ever wanted?
I tried to hide my tears.
The only way I was able to get on the flight and withstand the fourteen hours of mental hell was to tell myself that America didn’t have to be forever. It was just a job. I could go back to Taiwan soon or we could go back together a few years down the line. People move around, come and go. It’s part of life.
Our next challenge was being apart.
For the first couple of summer months, it was about adjustment and planning.
After getting used to living overseas, reacclimating to America was not easy. I had tried to immerse myself into Taiwanese culture, avoid almost all foreigners, and live like a local. I’d forgotten some of the problems with America, but now everything was front and center: politics, shootings. Even little things like office chitchat were foreign to me. To make it even harder, I had to adjust from working fifteen hours a week to working forty hours a week, and doing much more skilled projects. At the age of thirty-two, this was my first real experience in an office, and I was worried the adjustment, readjustment, and time apart from my girlfriend would break me, but the new team was supportive, and I survived.
The jet lag wore off after about one month. Around that time, I had to start making preparations for Tessa’s visit in September. It was stressful in so many ways: I was going to take the plunge and propose to her (!), and I had no clue what that entailed. I was unfamiliar with suitable proposal places in the area. As she was visiting for her birthday, I needed to prepare a birthday present as well. I wanted her to have a wonderful visit and prove to her that the guy who relied on her a lot while overseas could be relied upon in his home country. I wanted to be a good tour guide while also showing her that we could make it here in this new land together.
Buying a ring on future money is a nerve-wracking experience.
In the South Bay, it’s almost a requirement to have a car, but I couldn’t afford to pay for all the moving expenses, an engagement ring, and a car, so that would have to wait. I bought an inexpensive bike instead.
I looked into local jewelers – Tessa has very exquisite taste in fashion and jewelry. I found a place near work with close to five stars on Google, and I walked in to browse. Over the course of a few weeks, I went into that shop or emailed/called the manager almost daily to bounce ideas off each other, and she was good at balancing what I wanted with my budget. We settled on what I thought was a beautiful-looking piece that could be squeezed into my budget if I increased it by a few hundred dollars. I wanted perfection, and the reality with engagement rings is that you’ve got to sacrifice one thing or another to meet financial constraints.
I verified Tessa’s ring size without telling her why (how do people make this a surprise?) and we had to convert her foreign sizing into American sizing. With about a month until she would arrive, I made the order and was told that it would be ready in a matter of days, two weeks at most.
It was time to plan the proposal site. I looked into many different options, but without a car, I couldn’t easily scout out each one. From living in San Francisco and driving along Highway 1 dozens of times, I recalled specific pullouts that just might work at sunset. So I planned a day of whale watching in Monterey, walking around in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and an ocean sunset proposal in a desolate spot near Big Sur.
Next, I had to prepare for Tessa’s birthday. I kind of set a high bar the year prior – an expensive Haagen-Dazs ice cream cake ($100 in Taiwan), a thoughtful card, and a bracelet, and that was when I didn’t have a full-time job. Now that I “had” money, I thought she deserved an even better celebration.
I took my bike on the train to San Francisco to ride around and look for her gift. I locked my bike on a busy part of Market St. and went into a mall downtown. Tessa unfortunately just misplaced the previous bracelet I got her, so I found a nice necklace and bracelet that went well together. When I came out of the mall thirty minutes later, my bike was gone. Who steals a cheap bike that’s well-locked in front of the main entrance to a busy mall? People in SF. That came just a day after I had gotten a flat tire far from home and had to walk three miles to pay someone to fix the tire.
I planned to give her these gifts, a custom cake, and a nice card, and I would take her out to a fancy dinner. Minus the setbacks, the plans were coming together nicely.
One week later, I decided to swing by the ring shop to check on the status of my order. It was a tiny place that I’d gone into six or seven times in the previous weeks. I had spent hours in the boss’s office, but when I walked in, the boss’s assistant asked me if I was the guy who ordered the diamond earrings. What? The boss herself then came out and asked me if she could help me look for a ring or something. I didn’t get a haircut; I wasn’t wearing anything special. Did they forget about me?
I reminded the boss of my order, then she acted as if it was dawning on her, but actually I still don’t think she had any idea who I was. She looked up my order number and was visibly puzzled when she came across the order info in her file cabinet. She stared at the paper for a few seconds, thinking.
“Yeah, we’re still working with the local jeweler. The design will take some time.”
I pretended like I didn’t notice she obviously forgot to send my order in, but she did reassure me that I’d have it in the next week or so. I confirmed many times the date that my girlfriend would arrive.
“That’s not a problem at all!”
Over the next two stressful weeks, I went from being patient to being confused. During the ordering phase, the lady was extremely communicative over email and text, but when I kept waiting for the ring to be delivered, she ghosted me. I was bewildered, frustrated that the ring might not show up on time, and confused as to why she couldn’t give me any sort of update. Just three days before my girlfriend was supposed to arrive, I went to that store again to see what was going on. The lady was indeed alive and hadn’t moved to another country. She made some excuse about being busy, then she informed me that there was an “issue,” but I’d have the ring on the day she arrived.
A couple of days before my girlfriend got to the Bay Area, I learned that I passed Level II of the CFA exam. It was awesome, considering I took Level I six years before and had done nothing remotely related to finance in four years in Asia.
Tessa arrived at the beginning of September, and on her first day she went sightseeing in SF while I worked.
The ring lady generously offered to bring the ring to my office because of the inconvenience of waiting I’d been through. So at lunchtime, her assistant showed up in the lobby of my building with a bag. I opened it up to check the goods, as one does with rings and drugs and these sorts of things. Inside was a ring holder with no receipt or any documentation, which felt kind of strange. When I opened the ring case, I was shocked to see that the ring was completely different from what I ordered. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Maybe the lighting in the lobby was dim. Maybe the picture online wasn’t representative. Maybe I was just being paranoid. I just couldn’t believe that there would be another problem this late in the process, when it was already too late to fix anything, so I said thanks and went back to my office.
Once inside the office, I examined the ring more closely and had a coworker check it out, and we agreed that it certainly wasn’t what I ordered. Meanwhile, during that same lunch, I had to go pick up my girlfriend’s red velvet cake with her name and birthday greetings on it. After everything that had happened, I was assuming that there would be a problem with that, too.
But there were no issues with the cake, and that evening I joined her in SF and we picnicked in front of the Painted Ladies and had a wonderful fancy dinner with her delicious cake for dessert. I gave her the birthday gifts. For the moment, the ring was not on my mind.
The next day was proposal day.
We got up super early to drive the rental car down to the morning whale-watching tour, and we lucked out with crystal clear skies in what is usually a foggy Monterey Bay. We were satisfied after seeing many humpback whales breaching in the blue water. Then, we had a great brunch down in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and walked around by the beach and ate cherries we bought on the side of the road. The day was perfect so far, but I felt like throwing up for what was coming next.
On the drive down to Big Sur, I was trying to figure out the best way to propose to her with an incorrect ring as she snored in the passenger seat. Should I just propose and tell her the story afterwards? Maybe, but I wanted everything to be perfect for my girlfriend and future fiancée and future wife-to-be. Using this ring would not be perfect.
The coastal scenery was absolutely gorgeous, and there was not a cloud in the sky. In between naps, she got to see firsthand why I spoke so highly of Highway 1.
The sun started setting, and the panic started setting in. We needed to find a pullout quick. I found one, but another car pulled up behind us, so I roared ahead. Just a few minutes left.
Finally, with only about 20% of the sun still above the water, we found an isolated spot and pulled over. At that moment, the “golden hour” of photography that I’d loved when taking sunset pics on the coast, was happening.
We got out of the car and were enveloped in blues, purples, reds, oranges, and yellows.
“This is the prettiest sunset I’ve ever seen,” Tessa remarked as she slid her hand into mine.
The ring was in my pocket. It was time, but my mind wasn’t so sure. I hesitated, and just as I did so, a group of stubborn mosquitoes flew around our faces. We moved, but they followed us. She wanted to go back in the car. I told her, “wait.” She looked at me in anticipation, but I froze up again. We walked back to the car.
I tried to speak but all I could utter was: “Hey…”
I was nervous, confused, frustrated at myself and the ring.
As the last sliver of sunlight dropped below the ocean, I began speaking.
I explained to her that I was going to propose but the ring was wrong and I felt like it took away from the integrity of the proposal so maybe I could do another proposal later in the week with the right ring. Right after I finished explaining, I realized it sounded dumb. But I couldn’t think clearly because of the pressure of wanting everything to be perfect in “our story.”
She understood but also was confused why I didn’t just propose with the faulty ring. I hated myself the whole two hour drive back for blowing what should have been our special day.
We went to the ring store the next day and had an interesting discussion with the owner, who said that the ring was exactly what I ordered. When we proved that to be false, she contended that any slight difference in design wasn’t her fault, and that she could not give our money back. Here we were in this dispute over a ring, something symbolic of such a positive idea, and yet this increasingly negative experience would wrap around Tessa’s finger every day. She convinced the boss to make some slight changes to the ring that would make it closely resemble the ring that we ordered. The owner agreed to do that and promised to have it ready by the next day.
The next day the ring was not ready. She promised the next day, and the game continued. It got to the point where we questioned if the ring would be ready in twelve days when Tessa would leave. So I thought I’d take matters into my own hands. My grandma had given me her old ring to propose with, so I put it in my pocket and hoped for a chance to redeem myself.
We went to Fisherman’s Wharf in SF. Touristy, but in the evening, we walked out on a pier near the Presidio and were graced with another perfect sunset, this time over the Golden Gate Bridge. There was no time to delay. Although it wasn’t ideal – there were dozens of other tourists around us this time – I nervously began my proposal speech.
Less than two years after meeting this beautiful woman, my dreams were coming true.
I felt relieved and happy walking along the water with my fiancée.
And in the end, it was surprising enough, since she assumed we’d have to wait for the other ring.
We did a lot of sightseeing. Hiking. Shopping. Dined at exquisite restaurants. Spent a couple days in Yosemite. She tried marijuana for the first time.
The ring was now a nuisance, an endless source of frustration. We checked in on it multiple times, and finally got the real ring two days before Tessa needed to leave. There was yet another problem with the sizing and the certificate, and the owner was becoming extremely shady and cryptic about everything, so things had to be handled by a frightened me after Tessa left. I still avoid that ring place to this day.
On Tessa’s last day in America, we began the paperwork for the K-1 fiancé visa. We knew we would be applying for it, but we had wanted to make sure things were okay in America for me and my job first, and make sure that we wanted to be together forever. The visa would give her the right to come to America to get married and obtain residence and get a green card.
The visa paperwork was overwhelming. We had to provide proof of our relationship: Line and Facebook messages of our most intimate conversations, emails, pictures together, travel itineraries, with everything specifically labeled and explained. We had to fill in all kinds of personal information and history, find obscure documents from our childhoods, and write formal letters of our intentions.
After she left, we shared other additional necessary documents and mailed copies of things. After we verified over text that everything was correct seven or eight times, I put hundreds of pages of our material into a very specifically organized binder, and we paid the hefty fee to send in our application.
Our challenge was to wait for some kind of government response to our visa petition.
It could be months, a year, or more.
Meanwhile, I adjusted to my job, and we adjusted to making a long-distance relationship work. This wasn’t any long-distance relationship though; the time difference between the Bay Area and Taipei is just about the worst you can get: 15/16 hours (Taiwan doesn’t have Daylight Savings Time, so the difference changes). The moment I’m waking up is the moment she’s going to bed, and my evening is her morning. It’s very hard to communicate. We found a system where she would call for a few minutes at her lunch, or I’d wake up a bit early to talk to her before she slept. These habits strengthened the communication in our relationship, but we looked forward to being with each other again.
Starting to study for the hell that is Level III of the CFA would keep me busy before then.
We decided that the Chinese New Year would be a good time to visit each other, because she had ten days off work, and I had a long weekend for MLK Day. Since we didn’t want the red flag on her visa application that entering the country might create, we agreed to meet just miles outside of the border in Vancouver.
The week before we were to meet in Vancouver, Tessa was offered a very good job. She had originally planned to leave her current company and take advantage of the free time and travel while she waited for the visa. But because we didn’t know how long the process would take, and because she wanted to at least experience what it was like to work at a good company and potentially good work environment for the first time in her professional life, she accepted it. We agreed that she would just stay temporarily, and this would not affect her plans to move to America. Besides, who knew what would happen with our application. What if there was a long delay? What if she was rejected? Maybe starting the job under the condition of needing to leave soon wasn’t a perfect idea, but it wasn’t a bad idea either. She would start after the Chinese New Year.
That same week happened to be the greatest of my life. First, I won the Research Report of the Year award at my company, for which I gave a presentation and got a plaque and some cash. Then, I was told by my boss that because the company had its best year in history, I’d be getting a decent raise just six months in. Also, our bonuses were going to be higher than expected. I’d never gotten a bonus before in any other job.
Just days after the good financial news, something more important happened : our K-1 fiancé visa was approved, a bit earlier than we had expected. The next week, we’d be in Vancouver spending time together with all of this fantastic news as a backdrop.
While the visa update was great, it certainly put her in a difficult position. She’d already accepted the job, and we still didn’t know for sure what would happen in the visa process.
We had a lovely week in frigid Vancouver. We went skiing, shopping, ate excellent seafood, and watched movies together. During the week, I was able to work remotely while she went out and shopped more on her own. I’d meet her downtown each night after work. I felt so much more secure with her in the picture.
We prepared a few things for the next step of the visa process. At the end of the week, she took me to a chocolate place and surprised me with a decadent birthday cake that we had to finish in one day. That was one of our relationship’s brightest weeks. When it was time to leave, we were no longer sad; we’d be together again soon. Unfortunately, the job she was starting next week would have to be cut short in a month or two, but we’d find her something great in America.
Before I got on the plane back to the Bay Area, Tessa reminded me to wear a mask because at that time this thing called the “Wuhan coronavirus” was ravaging China, and there were a lot of Chinese transiting between China and Vancouver for Chinese New Year. This thing seemed to be contained to China, and of course we hoped it went away, but we didn’t imagine it would have an impact on us.
Weeks later, the US government announced that Tessa’s case was officially handed over to Taiwan, so we were at the final, easiest step of the getting to America part. She’d simply need to get a health check and schedule an appointment with the American embassy in Taiwan, and at the appointment they would ask her simple questions to make sure our relationship was valid and would give her the K-1 visa in the end. This was just weeks away.
During the previous months, I had been searching for used cars, but when it came time to buy, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I always had some sort of excuse – I don’t want to spend this much at once. I don’t trust this dealer. There’s no warranty. I’m not sure if I’ll be here long term.
After living carless for nine months in an area in which a car is compulsory, and putting my life generally on pause to study for the CFA and spend very little money, Tessa’s approval was a turning point. Originally I was saving up to buy the ring, and then I was saving for the large expenditures we’d have together in America. Now that she would for sure be coming, there was no excuse not to buy a car. It would be our car.
I did so much browsing, but settled on a gently used 2015 Toyota Prius. Gas in California is nearly twice as much as every other state, and was above $4.00/gallon when I made the purchase. Everyone knows Priuses get fantastic MPG, are great for the environment, safe, and last a long time.
I pictured Tessa sitting in the passenger seat (she doesn’t like driving, and that’s fine with me in the crazy Bay Area), her long hair blowing with the breeze from her open window. A car seat in back with a little boy or girl. Dropping her off at work in the morning. Showing her around the Bay Area. Going hiking. Driving her to the mall. Cruising down to LA, taking her visiting parents to Yosemite, going on her first American road trip. Listening to music, napping, talking about life in English and Chinese, discussing her good tech job in the Bay Area, yelling at the other drivers during rush hour. Being happy together in our Prius.
Right around that time, a few cases of coronavirus popped up in Taiwan, and it appeared this was spreading there and in other parts of Asia, and a bit in Europe.
I started to get worried, and I urged Tessa to schedule her appointment as soon as possible (it’s notoriously difficult to get an appointment at the American embassy in Taiwan) to avoid getting derailed by this thing.
We were about 98% complete with the hardest portion of the process, apart for 75% of a year, and I just wanted to be done with it.
She took more caution than me though. She wanted to wait another week to see what happened with the situation before proceeding.
So I enjoyed the time in my new car. I went hiking, I went to events that had been absurdly hard to get to by bus or train, but that took ten minutes driving. I saw sunsets. I meditated on mountains after work. But on these trips, listening to NPR, I heard that the virus had appeared in America. Seattle, then the Bay Area.
My company was supposed to host its largest conference of the year at the beginning of March, but at the last second, much to the chagrin of many prospective attendees, our president decided to cancel it. I was relieved, because I was still frightened from my previous immune thing and didn’t want to be at risk in an event with thousands of other people in close quarters.
The next week, we were told to work from home. Tessa half-joked that I could come visit her in Taiwan, which was getting the virus under control. I thought that would be a tough ask to my boss, and this situation didn’t seem like it would last that long.
Then, as if part of a sick joke, Santa Clara County became a COVID-19 hotspot.
I told her it was just like the flu. It wouldn’t be a big deal. It wouldn’t spread. But I was definitely worried – afraid that it would completely screw up our entire plan, and frightened for my health.
I had not looked closely at my license plate before. When I bought the car, it came with whatever plates the California DMV had randomly assigned. A couple of numbers, a few letters, but right now, it must be playing a joke on my eyes.
7FLU133. Right there in front of me, on my new car, the one that represented our new life in America after a long sacrifice, were random letters that signified the thing that might simultaneously ruin that new life.
At first, I thought it was a sign that I would get the coronavirus and die. After all, I’ve had a long history of weird immune diseases, and that thing that started all of this was similar when people talked about the symptoms.
Then I thought, well, coronavirus is different from the flu. Maybe I’ll be on my deathbed thinking it’s all going to be over soon, but then the doctor says, “don’t worry, it’s just the flu.”
Or maybe CORONAVIRUS was too long for the license plate gods, and COVID19 was taken, so mine was the best possible proxy.
Or it could be nothing at all. But the chances of getting those three letters, F-L-U in succession, when now on a daily basis the case count quickly got in the uncomfortable range, seemed very peculiar.
Work from home continued. We were still just waiting to see what we should do.
The US was in the hundreds of cases at that time, but many were in the Bay Area. Taiwan had a similar count, but after a week with only a few cases, they kept announcing an increasing number of imported cases on the news. They already had certain entrance limitations, and they imposed quarantines on specific countries and states (including California). But their emphasis on the word “imported” gave me the uneasy feeling that soon they’d be completely blocking foreigners from entering.
Then they announced that in just one day, the borders would be closed to Taiwan for nonresidents.
What in the world was going on? Just a month or so before, we were at the happiest point of our relationship, and our visa process was going smoothly. Now, without warning, I had to think about going back to Taiwan before it was too late? I couldn’t think clearly.
She urged me to come back, but there were so many moving parts. It was a risk. It wasn’t necessary. It wouldn’t last long. Would it?
With just a few hours to catch the final flight to Taiwan, I started freaking out. I called my boss and explained the situation to him, expecting him to be upset or to fire me for even thinking of leaving the country. Instead, he was surprisingly supportive, and told me to do whatever I needed to do. I wished I had talked to him earlier instead of waiting until there were less than three hours until the flight, when there might not be enough time to get everything in order.
I started to frantically pack bags. Should I move out of my apartment? Should I sell my car? The plane would be packed – it seems like everyone recently had gotten COVID while flying. What would happen if I got sick? What would happen if my company didn’t like that I was working in the opposite time zone and it created problems, or was afraid I wouldn’t come back, or I couldn’t come back. I’d need to quarantine in Taiwan for two weeks. My two priorities were my job and my fiancée, not in that order.
Still, I felt that it was just too much of a risk and in the rush, I might overlook something or make a big mistake. No, I would stay at home instead.
Besides, it was still rather early in America, and hard to tell how bad things might get. We might have it under control in a month or two.
Yes, I would for sure stay.
Two days later, the number of cases in America skyrocketed. The news foretold of impending doom. Millions of people lost their jobs.
I immediately felt pangs of regret for not going back to Taiwan, where the cases first quickly dropped to single digits per day, then to zero. Taiwan was constantly on the news for its prompt, excellent response. Taiwan, the place I never wanted to leave, the place with my fiancée, was one of the safest countries in the world at the moment. I was stuck in the Bay Area, one of the most dangerous places at the time, a place I didn’t even want to be. Was this a nightmare?
I started seeing these advertisements along the lines of “We’re in this together.” Who was this ‘we’ they were referring to? I wanted to be out of here. I felt so foreign. No one was wearing masks. People were disregarding social distancing rules. Americans were acting like idiots. Politicians were saying stupid things. Health organizations were contradicting themselves. I never fully assimilated back into American culture. Taiwan was still my home. I definitely wasn’t in this with anyone else.
My only reprieve from 24/7 mental torture (which was made worse by being locked inside of an apartment with four annoying roommates) was that things passed quickly.
I also looked for other routes to Taiwan – special visas, visa exceptions, the recognition of our fiancée visa, and others. We talked to many different offices in America and in Taiwan, but to them, our situation meant nothing. Legally, we were two single people, and thus I was akin to a normal tourist with no special rights to enter her country. But I wasn’t a tourist. My fiancée, my entire life, the woman I’d been living for for two years, was inside of those borders. Everything I’d done was carefully calculated to include her in the equation, and now after putting in all this work and paying all this money and spending all this time apart, the payoff that we expected after such a sacrifice was put on hold indefinitely.
The news kept getting worse. She tried to make a tentative visa appointment, but the US government announced many visa offices across the globe would be closing. Tessa got an email that her appointment would be postponed.
Then, millions more people lost their jobs, and an announcement was made that all immigration would be postponed for the time being to protect American jobs. Even if things in America the Death Zone suddenly subsided, and even if Tessa could come to the country, getting her green card and finding a job would be delayed from months to possibly years.
When I considered jumping ship to go to Taiwan, we never saw it as more than a temporary thing. We’d wait there to monitor the situation and would come back in a matter of months when things were better and when she could go to the visa office. But now that no longer seemed feasible, and the best thing to do would be to just start our lives in Taiwan, which again was the SAFEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. But again, I couldn’t go back.
During these months stuck in the prison of home, without the only person in the world I care about, I’ve had time to reflect. A year ago, when I was wavering over whether to return to the US, one of the many cons about the decision was that something could happen during the visa waiting process that could separate us for a long period. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We were together safely, employed, in the same good country. Giving that up didn’t seem like a gigantic risk at the time, but it was a risk nonetheless. Without her having a visa to America, and without me having a visa to Taiwan, a once-in-a-lifetime global event could divide us, and we’d have no way of seeing each other.
Upon further reflection, it has dawned on me that the island of Formosa has a stronger hold on my heart than I realized. After all, it’s both the place where I became I and We became We.
The main case for coming to America was that the Bay Area was full of great jobs. I’d be at a good company, she’d find a good company, and we’d enjoy the clean air and pretty scenery and diverse restaurants together and start our life in this new adventure. Yet there she was in Taiwan, her native country, with a job that turned out to be pretty good. The job market in America was deteriorating before our eyes, and the cons of America now outweighed the pros. Why was I here?
I would gladly stay inside of my tiny little room for years if Tessa were by my side.
I occasionally go to the local park with a mask on and see other couples, families with their masks on, socially distancing as a singular unit. Without Tessa, the room, the car, my packed bags, this city are a collective jail cell, and I’m dying here. I have to avoid the news for fear of ending up in a downward spiral. I get fixated, obsessed with getting to Taiwan, and on the rotten luck of our situation. But unlike other instances when I’ve gone slightly mad on the OCD front, the C here cannot be attained. The one current action I could take to fix things – flying to Taiwan – is not achievable.
Everything is painful. Taiwan continues to celebrate having no cases and having tackled the virus successfully. It seems like I’ll be sheltering in place in the Bay Area forever. The passage of time hurts.
We put a lot of time into this. This was a thought-out decision. At the time the coronavirus began, I could barely take the time apart anymore – ten months was plenty. Now it’s been a year. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to wake up next to her. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to hold her. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to kiss her.
Sure, we should be happy that we at least have good jobs in our respective countries. And that’s hard to dispute. But what good is a good job when the person you’re working for isn’t around?
I want to emphatically shout out: “No pandemic or virus or bug or flu can keep us apart!” But right now, yes it can.
My license plate is a constant reminder of our absurd situation. Three days after I financed my purchase of the Prius, the Fed lowered interest rates to almost zero, oil prices (and later gas prices) plunged, and every public place except grocery stores have been closed. I’m stuck paying monthly for this flu car that I can’t use, and paying insurance premiums so it can sit on the street. This car that I bought as a celebration of her coming here, a vessel for our new life together, was now a car that my fiancée might not ever be able to sit in. I drive alone to places that are blocked off. I can’t even sell it because no dealer is open, and I just want to go back to Taiwan because moving to America and starting a life will clearly not work out in the immediate future. Every time I drive to get emergency supplies, or go on another lonely, limited adventure, I look at my license plate and see that sick reminder of how a situation can go from so good to so bad in just a matter of moments, and how nothing has ever happened until it’s actually happened.
I love you, my dear, painfully so. Maybe it’s possible the license plate means that this terrible pandemic will be the thing that makes our relationship grow. Or maybe it’s a reminder of how our relationship began, and how it can continue. Maybe there are positives we can take from this. I’ll most likely have to sell the car for pennies on the dollar, and I’ll lose thousands, if I’m able to even find a seller at that point, and this year in America might be for naught in the end.
But I don’t care if I have to leave this Prius on the side of the road.
I don’t care about sunk costs.
I don’t care about our challenges in the past.
The only thing that matters now is being together.
I’m confident that we can grow from this. We’ll be a married couple with a story when we are finally together, in the same country, wherever that might be, whenever that might be.
Connor Bixby is from America’s heartland but has lived on the West Coast as well as in China and Taiwan. He has held a wide variety of job positions and had some truly exceptional experiences throughout the world, which he enjoys recounting via storytelling and comedy events. He is intrigued by awkwardness and the inner workings of the slightly abnormal mind, in both a humorous and a serious sense. Under the Neurotic Hood is his collection of thirteen short but fascinating first-person adventures referred to as “neurotic fiction.”