By Katharine Konietzko

Day one: I am flying home from Santo Domingo back to Los Angeles. My flight is tomorrow, first through John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and then on to Burbank International Airport in Southern California.

My decision to leave the Dominican Republic - where I am visiting an old friend and fellow writer -  feels both premature and too late. These final days in the country are like a brilliant morning made strange by the shadow of a cloud. Everyone shivers. Someone shuts a wicker basket. And suddenly we are the ants, moving blindly as the rain falls. My friend and I buy avocados at the store next to men and women in masks. But even the uncovered faces are masked.

Day two: I have wrapped a rainbow scarf around my face - a flagrantly useless gesture. All around me there is only one thought, one conversation, one fear. The woman sitting a seat away from me speaks Spanish and I feel needlessly protective of her. We are sliding under the same closing metal door.

A few rows ahead of us a good-looking guy talks loudly to no one. “I’m 54, I’ve lived so long, every day is gravy, man.” Maybe he is speaking to the woman next to him, but neither of us hear her. His blue and gray seat jerks back with every gesticulation. He wants to retire and move to San Diego. I close my eyes.

Later I open them to eat mustache-shaped chocolate chip cookies and corn chips. I see a new face lean across the aisle — a weathered old man in a snow- white cowboy hat. My heart leaps at the sight of him. I want to shelter under that hat more than anything. I want to eat a tin of beans and warm myself by the heat of its generous brim. The intimacy of that American image courses through me like medicine.

We touch down in Burbank and descend a wobbly flight of stairs into the cool desert air. I stop and take pictures of the tarmac, the clouds, the dim mountains in the twilight. Like I’ve never seen mountains before, like no one has seen mountains before. I am seized by the need to capture this image and stuff it into everyone’s brain until we are healthy again. I am bursting out of myself.
I come home in the dark and collapse.

Day three: The Dominican Republic shuts its borders to foreign travel. I spend the day calling my parents, my cousin, my friends down the street and up the coast. A tuning fork has been struck and our voices tightened to the same frequency. I eat the bread my upstairs neighbour brought to my doorstep, along with the strawberries and coffee.

My mind wanders back to the clay figures made by Taino peoples and the coral- colored stones of the first cathedral built in the New World. I think about Bartolome de las Casas, the Dominican friar who begged before the king of Spain on behalf of the ravaged indigenous population. I think of disease and domination.

I open the pages of my godfather’s favorite book — the book I checked out of the library which has shuttered its doors — and remember his dream of one day taking me up in the little plane he loved to fly. His greatest joy was to travel. He died of AIDS when I was two. And I am crying before I even read the first word.

But then I pull away from the past and think of the delicate, bearded smile of the customs agent who held my passport. The woman one seat away who squeezed sanitizer into my hands. The cowboy who yanked his suitcase off of the carousel and wandered away into the sunset. All of the people who helped each other get home. And I am grateful beyond words.

I saw mercy everywhere.

 

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