When we play, I am Indigo. She is Sparkle Princess Rainbow Ruby Gem. Here, she’ll just be Ruby.
I’ve been in quarantine with Ruby and her real-life family for the past 50 days. In Ruby’s favorite game, Family, we play sisters: Sparkle Princess Rainbow Ruby Gem is in sixth grade, and Indigo is in second. We both have a lot of homework. Also, we can fly.
In real life, I pay her parents rent to live on the first floor of their Brooklyn townhouse. Also, I’m a grown-up, and she’s three.
I call them the Before Times, when every day was different, when I had a life outside this house. Now, every day is the same: I wake up, I play with Ruby and her sister, and then I go back downstairs. I read, I eat, I call a friend. Every night, before I go to bed, I upload my photos.
On weekends, Ruby’s family goes to a cabin upstate, and for me, time ceases to exist at all.
There’s one friend I haven’t heard from in weeks. He’s an older man, away from his family, in this country alone.
I call. I text. I start to worry.
Ruby asks to see my photos. She likes the toy lens I’ve been using, with its hot pink rubber grips. It swirls backgrounds, and its effects are unpredictable. Ruby says the photos don’t look real. To me, they look more real than the ones I see every day in newspapers—of stacked body bags in hospitals, of Times Square completely empty.
Ruby points to a photo of her holding a purple flower. “Where was that tooken?”
“That’s in your backyard, bud. The other day, when it was so warm outside.”
“You mean the castle,” she says.
Finally, my friend’s daughter calls. He went to the hospital with the common symptoms: fever, coughing, shortness of breath. The doctors put him on a ventilator, and now he’s in a coma.
She is worried, and in a country far away. She needs me to translate, culturally and linguistically. And so I begin: I call the doctor, then her, then the doctor, then her.
Apart from Family, Ruby has two favorite games: Map, where she draws a map, and Market, where I carry her around the house in a basket while she squeals with laughter.
At one point, she looks up at me. “This is just a market for pretend,” she says. “In real life this is just the couch.”
Now, my existence has a new pattern: I play Family and Map and Market until Ruby’s parents stop working for the day. Then I spend the afternoons triaging between the doctors and the family, discussing plans and contingencies and whether to take extraordinary measures.
The day before her family goes to the cabin for the first time, Ruby puts down her sandwich. “Emwee?” she asks. “In upstate, is there Nutella?”
I nod, chewing my apple.
“And in upstate do they have Saturday?”
I nod again. “There’s Saturday everywhere, bud.”
She squinches her nose. “But also Monday? Do they have Monday in upstate?”
I swallow. “Remember the days of the week song from school?” Ruby stopped going to school weeks ago. I begin to sing it. “Sunday, Monday…”
She joins in. “Tuesday, Friday…” She grins and takes another bite of her sandwich.
My friend gets better before he gets worse. By day 30, the complications are mounting: he has pneumonia, kidney failure, a lesion in his brain.
On the video call, I watch the doctor: he’s wearing a shield over his mask, walking briskly down a corridor. His daughter asks, “What are his chances?”
I watch the doctor stop walking. He sighs. “I wish I could wave a magic wand and get your father out of this.” His voice is exhausted. “Look. We’re doing the best we can. But I’ll be honest: his chances aren’t good.”
We’re playing Map in the playroom by the kitchen.
Ruby puts down her doll. She looks at me. “Did nobody died from those bad germs?”
I watch the cat stand up, yawn, and mosey into the living room.
I pause. “Some people have died, yes.” I swallow, then smile. “But nobody that you love is going to die. We’re keeping each other safe.”
She shakes her head vigorously. “But for pretend yesbody died.” She jumps up, points to the dolls one by one. “You died and you died and you died!” She runs to the kitchen. A second later, she’s back, holding a spatula.
She points to each one: “Now you’re alive! Now you’re alive!”
She picks them up and twirls, her tutu floating.
My friend dies on a Saturday.
I pass the weekend alone, watching the rain trample Ruby’s purple flowers. The backyard doesn’t look like a castle to me.
On Monday morning I head upstairs. Ruby runs to me, hands me a doll.
I hug it against my chest and sit down on the floor.
I pat the spot beside me. “Let’s play.”