I woke up on May 9 with a splitting headache and a body that seemed to have taken a 50-foot fall. I had no bruises, but moving to the other side of my mattress seemed to be the worst idea that morning. It was 5 am. I rang my mother, told her “not to go near my room and the bathroom beside it.” I had a hunch. I placed myself in quarantine.
It seemed to take forever, but the ache faded by May 12. But then came the sore throat, and then the gradual loss of taste and smell in the next few days.
On the 16th, I was driven to a clinic for a swab test. The next morning, I received an email with the result in PDF. It read “Result: SARS CoV-2 RNA Detected; Interpretation: POSITIVE FOR SARS-CoV-2.”
I am now in the second week of my symptoms. The confirmation that I have the bug was expected, although it did nothing to dispel the feeling of dread. I’ve been in my room for more than a week now. This has been my life so far during the pandemic.
It may have started on the 17th. I have a couple of shelves in my room lined with paperbacks and hardcovers, books I’ve read and yet to read. I went to one of my shelves and just browsed through the spines of books. I would pick up one, flip it open, and fan myself with its pages, feeling the wind brush my face as the leaves rifled from my thumb. I was holding Epicurus’ “The Art of Happiness,” which I haven’t read yet. Prior to being sick I would do this, flip through my books and smell the pages, that unmistakable scent of a newly bought novel, the musty wind from an ancient leather-bound piece. I had once thought that perfume companies should come up with a scent akin to book pages. As I held “The Art of Happiness” though, I realized something strange. The book had lost the scent it had when I first received it, which was but weeks ago. As I flipped through the leaves, I couldn’t help noticing how there was no smell at all.
This made me pick another book, something I had just finished days ago: Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic.” I thought: This should still have the scent I’m looking for, distinctly recalling how I closed the book last week. When I rifled through it, though, I was a bit alarmed, because it had the same bland scent of nothing. It was just wind through my nostrils. I tried other books — my old copies of “Great Expectations” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Still nothing.
This made me sit for a while to think. Beside me was a bottle of alcohol; I poured some on my palm and almost dipped my nose through the puddle. Still nothing.
When my food was brought in, I tried to be more attentive. My mother came up with creamy chicken. When I opened the plastic container, I wasn’t surprised to smell nothing. The food looked inviting: diced carrots and chicken in a creamy white sauce, one of my favorite dishes. I began eating, making sure to take my time, feeling everything in my mouth. I felt myself chewing, swallowing. I was going through the motions. But, alas, I tasted nothing.
Someone once asked many years ago which of the five senses I would rather lose. I didn’t need to think. I straight up said I’d rather lose my sense of smell. “I have no patience for anything that stinks.”
But now that I had actually lost it, it made me think about my answer. In the bathroom while disinfecting the toilet I used with bleach, I figured that I didn’t need to cover my nose to prevent inhaling the fumes. To my mind there were no fumes. And then a week ago, I was brought a bag of wheat bread. I somehow lost the tag with the expiration date, so I just assumed the bread was all good because I didn’t find any weird smell or taste when I bit into a loaf.
There is something sad and dangerous about losing one’s ability to fully process the things we have around us. It wasn’t just the absence of pleasure, or the potential for harm. It is knowing that, while you are going through the motions of daily life, you are missing something. After all, the world speaks to us through the senses.
The ache in my body is gone, and so is the soreness in my throat. But I am still in isolation, still missing the joy of being able to smell and taste. I am hoping to recover soon, and for everyone to feel better. When this pandemic is over, perhaps we’d have the time to emerge from each of our rooms, go out into the world, talk about the people we’ve missed and meet new ones, talk about the dangers we’ve encountered, and all the pleasures of choosing or being given the chance to stay.