A Transatlantic Evacuation

It's been one year since Collin and I evacuated London in a blurry, COVID-induced rush.

Leaving the UK in late March of 2020 was an eerie experience. First of all, we had to decide whether we were going to leave or stay. That story is told in my blog post from a year ago, Exponential: How a Nanoscopic Creature Accelerated the World.

Once we'd decided to go, we had to find a new home for all our food. We piled the last items on a bench in the courtyard for other Goodenough College residents to go through. I cried when I said goodbye to Elster and Estee, the pair of magpies that built this glorious stick nest right outside our second-story window despite heavy pruning by the arborists.

The first leg of our journey was walking nine minutes from our flat at Goodenough College to the Tube station at Russell Square for the last time. The station was empty except for chastising signs ("Do you really need to travel?") and three staff members who wished as solemn good luck.

I have never seen the Tube so empty.

Back when we didn't know much about the virus, we decided to wear disposable plastic gloves salvaged from my green hair-dye box and paper surgical masks kindly gifted to us by another Goodenough College resident. The gloves became slick with sweat on the inside and soon tore, making hand sanitizing difficult. Knowing what we know now - that the virus is almost entirely airborne - I would skip the gloves. But at the time, we imagined everything around us glowing with infectious particles.

Heathrow was a ghost town, with a couple straggling passengers and nothing on the luggage carousels. Only a few terminals were open.

The health signs in Heathrow focused on social distancing. I found the moving advertisement for luxury lipstick above the empty departure hall disconcerting.

Goodbye London. When would we be back?

The British Airways flight was nearly empty. This photo shows the plane after everyone had taken their seats. The flight attendants asked the passengers to disregard our seat assignments and spread out as much as possible. A few rows ahead, a man in a full gas mask and a woman in a hand-sewn mask sat with two children. The snacks and meals had been replaced with bottled water and burritos in sealed plastic bags.

The health signs on the US side were less focused on social distancing and more concerned with the virus itself. I saw many of the spiky charcoal-and-maroon virions created by two CDC illustrators, which remain the most iconic image of SARS-CoV-2 a year later. Signs recommended staying home, washing hands, and covering coughs.

Despite our masks and gloves (which, as you can see, had shredded off by the time we reached Seattle) we were paranoid that we'd catch the virus on the plane, so I'd engineered a plan with my mom to get us home from the airport safely. My mom and a friend had driven separate cars to Sea-Tac Airport an hour before our flight arrived. My mom had left her Prius in the parking lot with a hidden key and gotten a ride back home with her friend. When Collin and I found the red Prius waiting for us, the world felt full of ghosts. I swore the driver's seat was still warm. How had it taken so little time to go from living an ocean and a continent away to this moment of closeness? It was weird to be picked up by an empty car at the airport.

Collin and I withstood our masks and the smell of our own breath for thirty minutes more until I pulled up at the dock where my mom lives in a houseboat. We unloaded our bags and stumbled toward Lake Union. There, beaming and waving from the window, was my mom!

We would spend the next fourteen days quarantining inside the unoccupied houseboat of her neighbors, Kiki and Wayne. At their gracious allowance, we were able to keep living there for a couple months of the spring. My mom and her young neighbor, Alex, had decorated the boat with welcome signs and tuppers of homemade cookies.

I dropped by bags and my sweaty mask and danced out onto the boat's deck to wave across ten feet of weedy lake water at my mom, who took this shot from the far side. In the midst of a terrifying, uncertain time, I felt incredibly lucky.