The known and unknown dangers

Apparently, the digital version of AWP (the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference) went live today, which means I have officially reached my own pandemic anniversary of a kind.

Last year, in early March, it was beginning to be evident that COVID-19 was spreading in the United States, but it wasn’t yet clear how far it would reach. Or perhaps I should say, it was not yet emotionally clear: I believe that we’d all been told, at that point, that most people on the planet would be exposed to the virus, but it just didn’t seem true. We didn’t know yet how long the effects would linger in the body, or what the death count would be. (I suppose we still don’t know those things, in a way. There’s more time yet to come.)

What we did know was that there were a few places the virus had already been spotted, and one of them was San Antonio, Texas, where the conference was set to be. People exposed to the virus had been brought to, I think, an Air Force base in the area? Ok, we thought, well they’re sequestered. But then, a few days before the conference, the people were released back into the general population.

I sat in front of my computer for hours and watched as the gossip spread. People canceled their flights, abandoned their booths, though they had already shipped massive boxes of books and t-shirts and mugs ahead of them to the conference center. A rumor went out that the conference was being canceled (as many other events and conferences would be in the following days)—a lot of people started haggling with airlines and hotel chains for refunds, something that would get easier, later, when the scope of the event came into focus.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt like this was a board game we were all playing, with only partial instructions. It was kind of fun, in the sense that it was tense and exciting and unprecedented; AWP is (for better or worse) a monolith in the literary community, and the idea that it would just…not happen? Did not seem within the realm of the real. I decided, because I had to decide something, that if they didn’t cancel, I’d still go—the friend I was splitting a hotel room with felt the same, even though droves of people were pulling out.

They didn’t cancel. (This caused its own shit storm in the coming days, because it was rumored that the only reason they didn’t cancel was that some members of the board were already there. I don’t know what happened! Someone quit in protest. They almost certainly should have canceled. But.) So I went. And honestly, it is one of the best memories I have of last year—one of my favorite AWPs.

It was a ghost town. People had been told not to hug or shake hands, but those of us present clung to each other and laughed. Panels were reshuffled, and so few took place that they were all pretty well attended—actually a nice change of pace. I went out for long dinners with friends; we had cocktails and ate street-side tacos and didn’t have any real place to be. The city felt normal, too: I remember going down to the river walk, and passing a huge bus of cheerleaders offloading at one of the hotels. I held my breath as I walked through the crowd of teens, but not when I passed people on the riverwalk, where we were all swanning around in the sunshine and taking pictures of the flowering trees.

Recently, I was thinking about the short flight between Tucson and Phoenix, which I (used to) take frequently, because Phoenix has a much larger airport; the thirty minute flight between them makes it easier to fly almost direct. Often have I sat in the Phoenix airport at nine, ten, eleven p.m., waiting for my short flight home. Eating a salad from one of the local chains, or sitting in Matt’s Big Breakfast for meatloaf, or just fazing out in a chair at the gate. Often have I sat there thinking, I travel too much.

Ha ha. Ha ha ha.

It feels hypocritical of me to say that the San Antonio conference should have been canceled, and also that it was and is such a source of joy. The book fair, usually a sea of people, was empty and unfocused; people took over other people’s larger booths and tables, spreading out and trying to get rid of the books they thought they’d have a much larger set of customers for. I bought a huge stack, and me and my friend/hotel roommate shipped them in flat rate USPS boxes, so we could buy more without having to carry them home. We had a pancake breakfast and met friends for lunch and then martinis and huddled around the lit world gossip on this, our one holy weekend per year when we could do such huddling in person instead of via text or DM. I ran into a different set of friends and we got on a river boat and went to the Alamo. That doesn’t sound like a real thing you can do, does it? But it was, it is. I ate two bags of Doritos, like I was the damn Marquis de Sade.

On the flight home, I used my packet of antiseptic wipes to clean the armrests of my seat; the tray table; the window screen. I popped my collar as if it would block particles from reaching my nose; as if they weren’t falling all around us like snow. I did not get sick. In fact, I do not know anyone who got sick at that event. It was cursed and blessed all at one time, and I wish I could go back there.  I wish I was there now.