My father told me to never go to Mexico, that it was dirty and dangerous and not worth the money saved over other warm, sunny locations, but I didn’t listen. My friends Dylan and Sarah decided to get married in Playa del Carmen at the Azul Fives Resort, and I couldn’t book my flight to Cancún fast enough. It was the end of another long ski season in 2009 when my friend Margaret and I departed snowy Vermont for the white beaches of the Caribbean.
The wedding was spectacular despite the excruciating case of sunburn that replaced my previously fair-skinned body for the duration of the trip. Dylan and Sarah could not have been happier surrounded by their wedding party and friends.
The weather was ideal, and we spent our days sitting poolside imbibing frozen drinks with umbrellas and orange wedges in them. They had swim-up bars that we decided should become a staple in life. At night, we danced and raged like people in their late-20s can still do without great consequence.
We took walks to the nearby nude beach (much to our dismay) and attempted oceanfront yoga, a class in which I only lasted ten minutes before dropping out. I met Dylan and Sarah’s friends from all over the U.S., and we spent four days in an isolated paradise with no cell service and no connection to the outside world.
My first indication that something was wrong came just before our departure when I decided to activate international roaming on my cell phone to check my voicemail, and I had twenty or so messages. My parents had called several times, as had my friends and coworkers. Everyone was asking if I was all right. I had no reason not to be fine, but this was when I learned of the paranoia surrounding the Great Swine Flu Outbreak of ’09.
The sight in Cancún Airport was equally alarmist as people traveled with masks à la Michael Jackson. When we landed in Boston, my roommate and fellow dormitory supervisor at the boarding school where I worked and lived called to tell me I couldn’t return to the school. People were worried, there were children and the elderly dying, and I could be a carrier. Whole schools were closing. They couldn’t take the risk. I had to stay away, for at least a week, maybe longer, they weren’t quite sure. It was April in New England and all I had packed were beach clothes.
My brother had rented a lake house in New Hampshire thirty minutes from the airport, so I called to ask if I could stay with him. He was barbecuing and told me to come on by. But as I drove to his house, he phoned back to tell me his wife wasn’t comfortable with me staying at the house. People were dying. Nobody knew the extent of the dangers of this illness. And I had just flown in direct from the source.
I checked into a hotel and called my mother in New Jersey to see if I could stay at her place if I drove down. She said it was fine, but then my uncle heard I was headed there and he disapproved. My elderly grandparents enjoyed visiting my mother, and if I stayed at the house and was a carrier of the Swine Flu and my grandparents came over, I could kill them. People were dropping like flies. Didn’t I care enough about my relatives to just stay away?
Life was turning into one of those zombie movies in which the family members tell each other that their loved one is no longer the same person she used to be. Doors were locked everywhere I turned. The stress of feeling quarantined without boundaries, the constant fear that perhaps I was a carrier, that maybe I would get sick in a hotel room all by myself and nobody would know, began to take its toll. I had skirts, dresses and tank tops, and it was 50 degrees outside and raining. I cried.
Then my father, the same person who warned me to never go to Mexico and who couldn’t say, “I told you so!” enough, became the one guy who pulled through for me. He told me to come stay in his apartment. He didn’t care if I got sick or even if I got him sick or if I was a zombie who just wanted to eat his brain. But every time I sneezed that week, he quickly asked, “Are you feeling ok?”
I never contracted any flu-like illnesses that spring or the next fall or winter. About 36,000 people die every year of the seasonal flu, more than double the victims of H1N1 in 2009-2010. But for eight days in April after a long weekend in Mexico, I had nowhere go and a village of angry townsfolk chasing me down with pitchforks and wooden stakes, and I couldn’t run all that fast in my flip flops.