Photo and writing by Jessica Blough
I had a dream about running just a few days before everything changed. I’m not a big runner — my chest usually tightens up long before I want to stop, and I have to slow to catch my breath. But in that dream, we were all there, and I was running laps on this small track, and I kept waiting for the pain in my chest to pull me down — but it never came, and I kept going and circling and running, even long after everyone else had stopped. At the time, I thought the dream was a reflection on feeling like my movement was restricted: I knew that running meant drawing attention to my body and my movement, already the subject of a thousand catcalls, constantly being watched. I wonder now if the dream was really about inhaling and exhaling, tensing and relaxing, taking in a new place and mastering a terrain. In Morocco, in many ways, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in years.
Is it completely insensitive to use a breathing metaphor here, in the time of a respiratory illness?
That whole last week felt like we were taking big, brave gulps of air, at every moment worried that we would need to save up our oxygen. I remember it in the moments I felt short of breath and breathless, two completely different feelings: in one, air is taken, and you are gasping, desperately seeking its return. In the other, breathing seems so mundane a behavior to supplement the present experience.
There was the night before Gari left, when the world I had built seemed to come falling down in about 21 hours, and suddenly our last night dinner and drinks had been derailed by unexpected illness and packing anxiety, and we couldn’t be brave and celebrate the semester with a toast — we just needed to be with each other while we still could. But then the family that Gari was staying rushed to tell me, in French, that poison was about to fall from the sky and that we had to run home to be safe, and we believed them because what if it was true and we were in danger if we didn’t go? But our fears turned out to be just WhatsApp rumors, and no coronavirus-killing gas fell from the heavens that night as we sprinted through the city. This is how misinformation rules, I think, running on fear and what-ifs. In plague times, maybe everyone is afraid and ready to take off if it might protect them.
Another moment of gasping: Marlon sent me a text that he was leaving at a moment’s notice — “im panic packing” — and I sped to the Océan neighborhood for one last goodbye. Everyone was bustling when I arrived. We walked in tiny circles, moving objects from table or floor to suitcase, alternating between trying to comfort and trying to pack. Someone handed me a cell phone, and I spoke with a driver in my second language and begged him to wait for five more minutes. Then we were lugging bags down the stairs, and then I was wrapped in the best hug ever, my feet lifted off the ground, all the air squeezed out of my lungs, one of the last hugs for a while. And then he was gone.
Our time in Hotel Texuda sometimes felt lazy, like we were lost in space, waiting to see what would happen next. At other times it felt full of purpose, like if we Googled hard enough and sent enough emails and wrote enough Facebook posts and talked to enough reporters, we could pull ourselves out of our aimlessness and get home. We rallied around each other, we rested when needed, we created work for ourselves because it felt better than sitting and waiting. We wanted to be in motion.
On our last evening in Rabat, our tickets from Marrakesh booked for the day, Elijah and I headed to the estuary where the ocean meets the city to fulfill a promise to ourselves. We took turns swimming and sitting by the shore under the clouds, which had made a rare appearance that day. The cold, salty water seized my lungs and I gasped, and the gasps turned to laughter, and the laughter turned to sobs, and the sobs turned back to laughter until I couldn’t distinguish between the two. I held my breath and tried to do a flip and coughed when water shot up my nose. Then I rested my hands on the surface and tried to match the rise and fall of my chest with the rhythm of the waves.
In the airport the next day, I wore a mask over my nose and mouth until I got lightheaded, crammed around hundreds of people all hoping to get out. I felt like each of my exhales was a potential poison to the people around me. But that didn’t change the reality that I get anxious about travel, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe with that damn thing on my face, so I slipped it around my neck. I still wonder if this makes me a terrible person.
There are so many other moments, so many memories that I wish to hang on to even as they slip away from me. I scribble notes down in my journal when I remember the little things at unexpected times — a warm beer, a conversation about scars, my host sister’s favorite soccer team, shades of pink in the sky on Valentine’s Day, my French instructor’s assurance that this goodbye was only temporary. It rained on the hotel roof — we had waited a whole month for some drops, and here they were, and I couldn’t tell if I was crying or laughing. We were together, those of us who were left, and that was the most important thing.
Now, every morning, I still forget where I am. The other night I slept on the couch because it’s more like the bed in my host family’s house in Rabat, and sometimes I feel like I’m suffocating when I’m alone in my own big bed. I still feel like I’m waking up in the wrong room.
The morning after I left Morocco, when some of us slept in London while we waited for our flights, I woke up from my roommate’s alarm after he slept through it. We had to wake up or we would miss our flights, and it had never been more critical that we catch them, but I was so disoriented, again, and I couldn’t remember where I was or who was in the other bed beside mine. And so I waited for a moment, and I watched the rise and fall of his chest until I remembered. And then I watched for another moment, and then it was time to go.
At the gate in San Francisco, I stepped out of the plane and didn’t play the Joni Mitchell song I usually play when I arrive, because this time, California didn’t quite feel like coming home. A very friendly EMT pretended that she wasn’t potentially endangering her life just by standing next to me, and she asked me if I’d felt short of breath lately, and I lied and said I hadn’t — that I had said a dozen goodbyes and seen hundreds of lives upended and swam in the cold ocean so far away, that I had lost time and friendships and future plans, but I had held on to my even in-and-out. She asked me if I was happy to be home, and I held my breath to keep from crying.