In the weeks before the pandemic I put most of my energy towards my part-time job, making popsicles in Bushwick. I was studying photography and sick of it: I was sick of the buffering wheel in photoshop. I was sick of professors who rolled into class on bikes and used “commercial” derogatorily in our critiques, then biked off to their real jobs photographing tubes of sunscreen and tomato paste for advertisements. I was sick of people bringing in nude makeup-caked self-portraits and asking to be compared to Cindy Sherman. I was especially sick of my own work: dreary long exposures that blurred the people out of the streets. I called them empty cities.
I wanted an empty city. Empty except for me and Syl.
And maybe Maria, my boss. When she went home to Peru to visit her parents she brought me back a pair of alpaca wool mittens. They kept my hands warm when I was camped out on the Queensborough bridge running long exposures of the Hudson.
Monday mornings we went to the wholesale produce market, came back with to the rental industrial kitchen with crates fruit. Maria plugged in the freezing machine – a rumbling bathtub-type thing full of coolant that got viscous when the temperature dropped, while I disinfected the counter tops and sharpened knives. Our kitchen was next door to a strip club, sometimes our first hours overlapped with their last, so we got a soft pulse of electropop before dawn. We hulled strawberries and whirled them into pulp, boiled huge vats of sugar syrup, squoze oranges until our hands tingled with citrus, cleaved open rancid durians to spoon out the custardy flesh. We would work from six a.m. till ten, when I’d take the train back to Clinton Hill and slide into my eleven a.m. class smelling like fruit.
Syl’s full name was Sylvia, which she didn’t use, because it was one of those tragic girl names. She made sculptures, mostly huge metal mandala-type things. Syl was effortlessly kind and relaxed, with a deep laugh. She had long brown hair and a candy-pink skateboard which she rode fearlessly if ineptly. I was in love with her, which was inconvenient because she was my roommate. Syl worked at a daycare, and on Election Day I came home to find several small children in our dorm, coloring all over the butcher paper she’d taped to the walls – Syl was looking after them while their parents were at the polling booth.
She liked to take a Marlboro into the shower, the window cranked open to avoid the fire alarm going off, steam and smoke curling out the window. I found the smell awful at first but grew to like it – she trailed it around the suite like a pheromone trail.
Sometimes I thought we had a moment – when we relaxed into each other watching a movie on her bed, shared a glass of juice on the fire escape, when I wiped a dab of paint or plaster off her forehead and she touched my hand gently – but there was no afterglow. She skated on, fell, got up, kissed whoever, smashed her sculpture and started over. Nothing tormented her. She didn’t get attached to anything.
By mid-March our stockpile of pops, stacked neatly in gallon Ziploc bags, had filled all the freezer space in the kitchen. Soon we would transfer them to a freezer truck from Maria’s brother in law, who had a refrigerated storage rental company.
We were supposed to spend the spring and summer selling the pops out of carts at festivals and fairs, like we had last summer, under a multicolored umbrella. The umbrella would inevitably blow away; I would run to catch it, jostling through a crowd. Some kind stranger would grab it and hand it back to me. I would thank them, panting, and give them a free popsicle for their heroism. Often you could predict the flavor people wanted before they asked: gaggles of children bobbing up and down for pink lemonade, teenagers crowding together for pictures with their hibiscus-limes, old people who let out slight moans at the first taste of grape.
But then the subway started smelling like bleach, and people started pulling their sleeves over their hands to open doors.
I got to the kitchen on a Saturday morning to find Maria on the phone, pacing. I sanitized the work surfaces, plugged in the freezing machine, drummed my knuckles on the counter. Maria paced some more, dipping between Spanish and English, words garbled by the rumble of the freezers. I washed popsicle molds, positioned sticks, melted chocolate for chocolate bananas. Maria hung up and washed her hands.
“We’re not going to get a freezer truck,” she said. “They’re contracted out to the city health folks, and they’re on standby.”
“Oh?” I dunked a banana into the molten chocolate, swiveled in the air so the shell would harden without dripping. “Why?”
“If this gets bad, they’ll need them to store bodies.”
It did get bad. There was a manic pulse that rippled through the city, sending everyone out to buy yeast and canned tuna, and then streets emptied.
The daycare where Syl worked closed. She found milk crates and sheet metal behind the cafeteria and took them up to our room, where she made a skate ramp. I would come home and find her perched on the edge of it, lining up her dropdown. Controlled gravity. Only so far to fall.
She sat on the window ledge, next to the aloe – the only succulent we hadn’t managed to kill – and looked down into the street. Cherry trees, blossomed white as ghosts, glowed in the dusk. A crow picked at the flattened corpse of a rat. Wind lifted a surgical mask off the street and carried it along the gutter.
“No one’s out,” she said. “It’s like your pictures.”
I sat down next to her. “It’s our free trial of the apocalypse.”
“Cancel after 30 days?”
“I hope so.”
By the end of the next week classes were moved online. Then administration told us to scram. We booked flights home – Iowa City for me, San Diego for Syl. We had three days to move out of the dorms. The chaos was kind of fun at first: the sleepless packing, the energy drinks, the people down the hall blasting the bee gees Stayin Alive, the picking through the boxes of free stuff in front of the elevator doors, the RA coming around with donuts. Everyone in pajama shorts and oversized tee shirts, hugging each other. And then we realized that it wasn’t about us, that anyone able to get out of New York essentially had no business complaining, and besides, this was going to be the boring kind of disaster: more dust bowl than Mad Max.
It was when we were exhausted, coming down from that initial high, that Maria called me up.
“We don’t have room to store all the pops,” Maria said.
“We don’t?” I put her on speakerphone while I taped up a cardboard box.
“No – Birpal needed somewhere to store his back-stock while the restaurants are closed, so he moved them in the freezers, and now they’re overstuffed and the temperature won’t stay down.”
Birpal was our kitchen’s landlord. He made samosas that he sold to resturants.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Send a batch to the nurses at Elmhurst Hospital? Or something. And then I was going to give you some.”
I surveyed the chaos of the room. I needed to take boxes to the mini-storage unit, retrieve prints from the darkroom, check in online for my flight the next morning. “Give me some? What do you want me to do with them?”
Syl, sitting cross-legged on her bare mattress, looked up from her laptop. “Free popsicles?” She asked. “We’ll accept that.” She smiled wide, hair greasy, oblivious as always. I hated her. I wanted to kiss her until we both lost our breath, not just because I could imagine what her mouth felt like, but because I wanted her to look at me with that look I had seen her have only a few times: riveted intent. I had seen it on her face looking at an Eva Hesse rope sculpture, or a small child who had just asked an absurd and beautiful question, but never while she was looking at another human over the age of five. I wanted her attention, serious and firm. And this might be my last chance in months to get it.
So an hour later we found ourselves under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway overpass, in N-95s and latex gloves, handing out free popsicles.
Folks passed by us on the way to the Costco. We tried to hand out the pops from a cooler that we’d bungee-corded to Syl’s skateboard. We offered watermelon-lime and tangerine, mango-chile and pina colada. A few people took them. Not many. A city’s pulse is heat-by-friction, and our city was growing colder by the hour. The big freeze loomed. Syl sat on the curb and ate a mango-chile pop.
“Sorry to drag you into this,” I said. “We should probably go home. I mean – New York’s a petri dish, and we’re all walking biohazards. I thought this would feel more helpful than it does.”
Syl finished the pop, licked the syrup off her fingers. “Sometimes it’s hard to spread the love,” she said.
We watched the sun sink behind the skyline. Syl lit a cigarette. I must have been watching hungry-eyed, because she offered me a drag, and for the first time, I accepted. The wind picked up – time to go back to campus. We had a whole subway car to ourselves, one of the ones with orange molded plastic seats and lights that make it feel like an aquarium. I balanced on top of the cooler bungeed to the skateboard, clinging with one hand to a hand strap, and ate a tangerine pop.
“Is this what surfing feels like?” I asked Syl.
“Let me try.”
I hopped down. She took my place. The train caroused around a corner hard.
“More or less,” Syl said. “But when you’re surfing, you put your hands out, like -”
“No!” I warned.
“- this.” She let go of the hand strap and spread her arms Jesus-wide. Just then the driver braked, and the cooler-and-skateboard sailed forward. Syl flew with it, smashing into the doors at the end of the car.
Usually with this sort of thing you’d limp over to the Brooklyn Medical Center and wait in the folding chairs while Jehovah’s Witness grandmothers offered you homemade cookies and salvation. But now that waiting room was full of people coughing up blood and trying to make face shields out of office supplies.
“We are not going there,” said Syl, clutching her sprained wrist. I offered to go to the Duane Reade for an ace bandage or a compress. She said no. She didn’t need me. Instead we went back to the dorm. She took a shower and an ibuprofen while I lugged my last boxes to the ministorage. It was dark by the time I got back, the moon glowing huge and oblivious above the housing projects. Syl was watching a horror movie.
“How’s the wrist?” I asked, trying to sound like I didn’t care.
“Swelling more,” she said, trying to sound like it didn’t hurt. I dug the last bag of popsicles out of the cooler and tossed them to her. “Ice it.”
From her laptop, Kurt Russel screamed.
“Wanna watch?” she asked.
I lunged onto the mattress and settled down beside her.
In the movie, a group of scientists someplace arctic got infected with alien spores that turned them into gooey monstrosities. They could be together and infected or alone and frozen.
The next morning my alarm went off at five. I had to take the train through the sprawl of outer Brooklyn, car lots and marshes, to JFK. Syl was sleeping. The Ziploc bag of melted tangerine popsicles rested against her wrist. Before leaving, I gently picked up the bag and unzipped it. I tipped my head back and gulped down the juice.
Elizabeth Wing used to sell popsicles out of a grateful-dead themed food truck. This year she dropped out of the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. Now she’s a wildland firefighter. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Up North Lit, The West Marin Review, Breakwater Review, and Underground. Her short story Leda’s Daughters was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.