A Box of Unused Masks – by Holly Zwalf

I tap on the wall and my love taps back. Like a heartbeat, like my skittish heart: so scared that I will lose him. I could text but I beat out my Morse-code message instead: I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.

THUMP.

Flesh and bone against plasterboard. I withdraw my fingers and wait. My phone lights up:

he’s angry he can’t see you. better stop.

He, his child; trapped on the other side of the wall with my love, and another nearly ready to be born inside him. On my side of the wall my child dreams. I brush my teeth, sceptical of sleep in the half-light never-night of this room. This room which I am legally required to remain in, as I will be arrested if I attempt to leave, even if just to flick the light switch off on the wall outside the door. But surprisingly I sleep better just knowing my love is there, on the other side of my wall.

I am the 15th in Queensland. My partner is the 16th. I catch it somewhere between the UK and home. I thought I’d done the heroic thing. A missed funeral, an emergency flight, determined to get back before the birth. Heroic almost rhymes with COVID. Coming home, which is how my partner catches it: coming hard against the kitchen cupboards at home, while sleep blankets the bunkbeds in the neighbouring room. We do our best to forget the hard lump between us: hard to be a boy with such a round hard belly, but he is still hard for me.

He finds it hard to breathe at the best of times, and this is definitely the worst. My love has cystic fibrosis and now he has this; he was born with shit lungs but I’ve made them much worse. The doctors are scared he will die. So am I. When the ambulance is sent to collect me and my child earlier that night, to deliver us to our negative-pressure prison, I text my sister: maybe this is where I lose him. And I do. For nine long days we are held in separate rooms, while his kid quickly loses faith in the world and mine descends into endless screen time. Now is not the time to police these things, but the inert electrical hypnosis slowly gets under your skin like the grit and shame of a week-long dirty come-down. From separate rooms we hold teleconferences with medical professionals we never meet face to face. This is to be the first COVID birth outside of China, and the first non-caesarean birth to COVID-positive parents in the world, so we are making waves in the hospital that are breaking far beyond our four small walls. My love and I text, we call, we tap through the wall. His child screams for hours on end, and at the end, not that it ever really ends, I hear my love cry. I go still and cold inside like a chameleon making peace with the aircon.

Every day is a battle to get the staff to see us as people and not just as a virus. Every day is a battle to remind them we have rights. The inconsistent rules have consistently destroyed us: one child is so broken he wants to disappear, the other already has. We adults know they are one and the same. At the birth I’m not allowed to pull my mask down and kiss my partner as he sweats and groans his way through the labour, and when the baby is born I am told to wear gloves as I guide him from between my partner’s legs and up onto his chest. For the last six days every touch has been muffled by gloves, and I need to feel the baby’s head, the hair, the blood, the warmth. So I refuse, and then worry that I will kill him with my disease. But I need to feel something alive.

The midwives wear masks as they weigh and check and swab. My partner wears a mask to chestfeed, change a nappy, cuddle. My 4-year-old wears a mask to hold the baby. I wear a mask to hold my love. The people who nervously bring our food, who reluctantly clean our rooms, all of them wear masks. For his first week alive the baby is surrounded by strange ducks with human eyes and double-padded paper bills. He is yet to see a smile.

Our family falls apart. The kids don’t understand why they can’t leave, why they can’t go home, why they get woken up all through the night to be hurt. The adults don’t know how to make sense of it either. The baby is the only one who is ok. When we are eventually released we fall apart even more, and have to move to separate houses to finish our quarantine.

We are both still positive but we are not allowed to visit each other. We text, like most modern lovers these days. My partner sends photos and videos of the baby and I watch him get bigger through the screen. There’s not much to see, but I ask for a video of him sleeping. A video of him feeding. A photo of his dirty nappy. I am missing out on so much, even the shit.

Our quarantine ends, but the distance doesn’t. We stay well away from each other, far further than the regulated 1.5 metres apart. We stay 1.5 hours drive apart, a quarter of a tank each way, a full day’s trip with a small child. The virus is over, but the trauma isn’t; we have all learned our lesson the hard way. So we continue to stay away, the same way that people in our small regional town stay away from us on the street, the same way that parents at our kindy, and workmen with unfinished jobs, and even the GPs at the local clinic pull away in fear. I have a box of masks from our discharge from hospital that go unused. I don’t know if we will ever be close enough again to need them.

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Holly Zwalf is a queer solo parent by choice who lives in a little log cabin in the bush with her wild child. In her spare time, of which she has none, she is an aspiring screenwriter, smutty spoken word performer, and the coordinator of Rainbow Families Queensland.

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