Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Begins with a high fever, 38° Celsius or more, accompanied by headache, discomfort, and body pain. Ten to twenty percent of patients get diarrhea. Within two to seven days a dry cough develops, usually followed by pneumonia.
Worldwide, 8,098 people are sick with SARS. Of these, 774 are dead.
One of them, my wife Mei Lin.
Stepping off Cathay Pacific Flight 6121 at Hong Kong International, I breathe in a chest-load of air, slide my hand along the tunnel rail, and wipe my mouth.
If there’s a God, I’ll be 775.
Leaving the terminal, I pass the luggage carousels headed for immigration check-in. This time, there’s no suitcases or travel bags so full they barely zip. No gifts from America or tax free airport wine for Mei Lin’s parents. Everything I own is in a black travel pouch strapped around my waist.
On your way to die, it’s funny how the things most important fit nicely into a travel pouch.
At the counter, a thin man checks my passport, staring at me over a baby blue surgeon’s mask. He stamps the book beside the stamps of other trips to Hong Kong—our wedding. Christmas and summer visits. Mei Lin’s funeral.
He slides the passport back to me and, muffled behind his mask, says, “Immigrant Entrance Card.” I hand him the small yellow card I filled out on the plane. The writing is barely legible, and I’m not sure if that’s from turbulence or because my hands are still shaking.
“Enjoy your stay,” he tells me, and I step in. Cutting through the swarm of people in the central lobby, I drop my passport in a trash container near the exit, letting my fingertips smear the edge of its opening.
Outside the airport, I walk toward the bus stop. Tai Mo Shan and the Eight Dragon Mountains are wrapped around the back of the island, dark and green and disappearing into the morning skyline. Two years ago, Mei Lin and I stood in this same bus line, huddled against the wind coming off the South China Sea. It was December, and we were staying through Chinese New Year.
“The dragon dancers,” she told me, “come right into your home—even if you live on the fortieth floor—and dance in each room.” Smiling, she said, “For good luck.” I board the KMB City Bus and spiral up the stairs to the top level, sliding my hand over the handrail to lift as many germs as possible. There are six or seven passengers, everyone spread out at least five seats apart. Except for an old man near the middle, they’re all wearing surgical masks, their eyes following me until I pass.
I drop into the seat beside the old man, lean in close, and take a deep breath, patting him on the hand. His forehead bunches up. “Tsi sing, gwai lo,” he says in Cantonese, calling me a crazy white man. He stands and plows over me, heading for the staircase. Over the hiss of the bus pulling away, he yells something else I can’t hear, shakes his head, and drops down the stairs out of sight.
I breathe in deep through my mouth and hold it.
The other passengers are twisted toward me in their seats, all eyes and muffled breathing. A couple of their masks are blank, but the others are decorated with words and colors, pictures and symbols.
There’s a British-Hong Kong flag.
A “Peace” sign.
A teenage girl a few seats up, her mask says: “NO KISSING.”
The people are wearing these masks because it can be transmitted by air. If someone sneezes or coughs, the corona virus is released, back flipping in the air until it finds a surface or is breathed in with your cologne or perfume. With the smell of your breakfast or green tea, your own oxygen leads it straight through the front door.
Sort of a new millennium Judas.
I take another deep breath and kiss the window glass. Outside, we’re crossing the Tsing Ma Bridge, headed into the congested streets of the New Territories. The bus brakes hard every few seconds, squealing and stopping inches away from the double-decker ahead.
I unzip the travel pouch and lay the contents across my lap. There’s Mei Lin’s wedding ring. An envelope with forty-five thousand Hong Kong dollars. There’s a wedding reception photo of us standing above our red and gold cake, our arms hooked at the elbow, drinking after a toast. Her mouth is covered in red icing, her cheeks flushed from the champagne, the way they always did with alcohol. In the photo, I’m so nervous my glass is blurry from shaking.