'It's the Fanciest Hotel I've Ever Stayed In and I'm Only Here Because I Might Die': The Corona Inn Diaries

·18 min read
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

My cab driver to the Corona Inn isn’t worried about catching the virus from me. “I might catch it from you, I might catch it grabbing a slice. At least this way,” he says, “they’re paying me double.” He means New York City Health + Hospitals, which has covered the fee of this cab ride and my stay—including meals—at the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel. The driver wears two masks. I wear two masks. He wears plastic gloves. I wear insulated Humane Society gloves I bought at a thrift store. It’s a relief to know he knows what I am—infected; contagious—and is not, as I feared, naïve to the threat I present to him.

Today is my fourth day of infection. Or maybe my fifth. Or sixth. Or seventh. Or eighth. What I know is I tested positive four days earlier—Sunday December 2nd, contact tracing records will show—and spent the subsequent days isolated in my bedroom, bingeing TV in bed, peeing on only the most dire occasions, refusing to shower because I feared taking off my mask, testing my temperature every hour—97.3, 97.5, 97.2, 96.9, 98.1, 97.3—measuring my oxygen levels twice as often—98, 99, 95, 96, 96, 96, 96, 97.

My roommates are helpful and supportive and far too understanding than they deserve to be, but I fear overtaxing them. We have only lived together for a month. I fled my last living situation after a blow up with a roommate. It was easier to leave than to stay and fend off her accusations, many of which I accepted as true: I’m selfish, ungrateful, evasive. That I might have been those things because she misgendered me for months does not occur to her, or even to me. I am more than willing to accept other people’s feelings about me. And part of the reason I left my apartment—even though I’m scared of staying at the Corona Inn—is that it would be selfish not to leave.

Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

The cab parks in front of a towering red hotel near the airport, every floor glinting with windows reflecting opposite windows. This is the LaGuardia Plaza: a four-star establishment currently run by a mix of NYC Health + Hospitals healthcare workers and a small cadre of wary hospitality staff. Behind me, across the boulevard, planes lift into the sky. The driver unloads my bags from the trunk and I feel a gulping guilt for not having cash.

Inside, two security guards at a folding table take my name and usher me to a circle of padded armchairs next to what had been a functional bar. A nurse arrives to outline the rules:

Nurses will enter my room at 1 and 5 AM every morning to ensure I am breathing. Wellness checks will occur at 8 AM and 8 PM. No guests are allowed in my room. I can leave my room only for smoke or fresh air breaks. I cannot bring alcohol or sharp objects—including razors—into my room. Cigarettes must be checked with the guards and will be returned temporarily during smoke breaks. Do I have any dietary restrictions? I don’t eat meat. I am allowed to order delivery until 10 PM. I can leave whenever I like—“This isn’t prison,” the nurse reminds me—but they recommend I stay for eight days.

She leaves me waiting in the hotel’s elevator bay. It is a glitzy, marble-floored lobby with deep black walls and gold trim. It is the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in, and I am here only because I might die. The nurse retrieves the elevator reserved for Covid patients—we are only allowed to enter one of the elevators. Nurses and hospitality staff can use the other two. There are no buttons on the wall to request the patient elevator. Instead, the nurses must find the it and ride it to where the patients are waiting.

Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

She arrives and beckons me in. On the floor are four decals of feet, a pair in each corner, indicating where riders should stand. Maximum four people are allowed to ride at any one time.

On the seventh floor, we wait in the bay for security to inspect my bags. “Do you know how you got it?” the nurse asks. It was the question everyone asked. Friends, family, dating app matches. I didn’t know how. No one I’d seen over the past two weeks will ever test positive. Mine is an immaculate infection. Did I catch it at the pharmacy? From the faucet handle in a Prospect Park bathroom? A passerby coughing outside my local bodega? I’d never know.

“Weird,” says the nurse, like she suspects I’m lying.

My luggage passes inspection.

The nurse rushes me down a ted-carpeted hotel hallway that's been transformed into a hospital wing. Tiny trash cans huddle between the white doors of hotel rooms, overflowing with tightly knotted clear plastic bags packed with waxy cardboard meal containers. Taped to the doors are signs noting who is inside the rooms—father and son, husband and wife, adult male—or when the room was last sanitized. Halfway down the hallway two nurses sit at a plastic table watching to ensure no one leaves their room or enters the wrong one—the doors don’t lock, a safety precaution.

Inside my room, the air is so hot and dry it makes my nose burn. There is a desk, a chair, a dresser, a mini fridge, a king-sized bed, one pillow, one TV, and a bathroom (stripped of everything sharp). “Have you eaten lunch?” the nurse asks. I haven’t. She will check if there’s any lunch left. I thank her profusely, giddy with gratitude, trying to wipe all selfishness out of my speech. When lunch arrives, the cold pasta is loaded with cubes of indeterminate meat. I am, however, too committed to gratitude to complain. I fork the meat into the trash.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Day two at the Corona Inn starts at one in the morning when a nurse opens my door and listens for me to grunt “I’m okay” as proof that I am still breathing. A second check at 5 AM. At seven the nurses shout “Breakfast!” I toss on a sweatshirt and mask and stumble groggily to the door. In the hallway two masked nurses push carts full of coffee and tea and waxy cardboard boxes. The door to my right is cracked open, as are the two doors across the hallway. We stand embarrassedly in our doorways like dogs in a kennel, poking our snouts out of our cages, eager for whatever we’re given.

At eight AM, a nurse performs a wellness check. She aims the temperature gun at my forehead. I clamp my oximeter over my index finger and she advises me to move it to my middle, where the color of my nail polish is lighter. 97.8. She asks me if I want a smoke or fresh air break today and I very much do. Someone will come for me around four.

Though I normally watch Democracy Now! every morning, I avoid it today—and will avoid it every day I am here. I’m less eager for the news now that I’ve become it. A week ago, I obsessed over the escalating American death count, horrified as daily fatalities surpassed September Eleventh and Civil War battles. But now I want only the distraction of sports articles and reruns of The Office.

Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

I eat around the meat in my lunch.

At 3:55, I put on my jacket and jeans and a mask and wait near the door, ready for someone to lead me outside. 4:00 PM passes. 4:15 passes. 4:30 passes. Day becomes night and I remove my jacket and jeans and wait for dinner to come.

I stick my snout through the door.

The nurse passes me dinner. “Here you are, sir.”

Sir.

Sir.

Sir.

Sir.

Sir.

Each one is a little stab on the neck, though I do not correct him, and will not correct the other nurses. I know how I look, I know he can’t possibly know that I’m trans—that my pronouns are they/them—I know he’s harried and overworked and what does it matter? I’ve been called sir most of my life. Another week won’t hurt. At least the pain won’t feel any different.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This is the longest I’ve gone without shaving in months. The scratchy carpet of beard sprouting over my face makes me regret not sneaking a razor into the hotel—tucked in a sock or strapped high up my thigh like a pistol.

I complain to my friend V over text. We commiserate. Her concerns, though, appear greater than mine. She’s concerned about catching the virus and being misgendered in the hospital, dying without dignity. Her roommate is, at best, reckless with whom she invites into their apartment. V is spending as much time as she can in her bedroom to avoid the breath of the boyfriend her roommate brings over. My little aesthetic dysphoria feels selfish and small and I minimize my impulse to shave. She stops me: “If shaving’s important to you, it’s important to you. I’m sorry it’s stressing you out.”

When the nurses deliver lunch, I ask if the fresh air break was cancelled the previous day. “Had you wanted to go?” the nurse asks.

“Can I go today?” I ask.

Someone will come for me at four. “Be ready.”

At 4:00 PM, a nurse knocks on my door. I’m lounging in a chair near the window, reading, in sweats and a t-shirt, assuming no one would come for me. I mask up, open the door. She tells me to meet her in the elevator in five minutes.

Another masked man and I wait in the bay as the nurse retrieves the patient elevator. Downstairs, the man checks out his cigarettes from the security guards, and I proceed to the exit, pushing the door open with my toe because I fear getting this door and everyone who may touch it sick. A crowd of smokers smoke under the portico standing six feet apart. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen smokers smoking without talking to each other.

I walk the edge of the driveway—where a guard stands cross-armed and bored—and suck in little wisps of fresh air through the two fabric masks over my mouth. Taxis and scooters veer into the driveway, delivering sick people and sick peoples’ meals, as I pace between the portico and the edge of the driveway, glasses fogged to a wintery fuzz. The nurses summon us back after ten minutes.

Join Esquire Select

In my room, I flirt with people on dating apps. I FaceTime with these people. We exchange photos of our junk. When they ask how I caught the virus, I tell them the truth: I don’t know. I assure them I took every precaution: I didn’t travel! I maintained my bubble! I wore a mask at all times outside the house! I’m one of the good ones! For months, I ridiculed the bad ones: those who hugged friends and ate indoors and lowered their masks to their chins and washed their hands for a reckless 17 seconds and punctured their bubbles. After 8 months of not catching it, I believed the only people who caught it were the ones who didn’t follow the rules. Wear your fucking mask! I wanted to shout at these people, when passing them on the sidewalk, and I’d comforted myself knowing they would get what they deserved. And now here I am, getting what I believe I don’t deserve.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“How long have you had a temperature?” asks the nurse.

“I don’t have one,” I tell her.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine,” she says. “Take Tylenol.”

“I have Advil,” I say.

“You can order Tylenol from the pharmacy.” By pharmacy she means the hotel’s convenience store—where a small bottle goes for nearly ten dollars. It’s not worth it for me.

I measure my temperature using my personal thermometer every fifteen minutes. I normally run low on this thermometer, at a cool 97, but all morning I record a generic 98.6. I text the friends I have told I am sick to tell them that I am now sicker. One friend’s dad is a doctor. It’s really only a fever when you hit 101, she assures me. 98.4. I watch two episodes of The Office. 98.2. I reread Leigh Stein’s Self-Care and text about it with a friend. 98.4. I start watching Sex and the City for the first time and slide through the first season like a hot knife through snow. 98.1. I call my mother. 98.1. I research the reliability of oral thermometers versus thermometer guns. 97.9. According to the internet, my oral thermometer is more reliable than what the nurses are using. 97.9. I read about Covid causing ED. 97.8. I masturbate, to assure myself I’m not a long hauler. 98.1. When nobody comes for me, at 4:00 PM, I assume it’s because I ran a fever this morning. 97.6.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

When I blow my nose in the morning, the tissue darkens with blood. I blame the hotel room heat instead of the virus. The air inside is dune-dry.

This morning, I work on my novel for the first time since I arrived. When I open my notebook, I find my narrator stuck in a hotel with nothing to do. I quickly write her out of her room, into the streets of Paris, where she has sex with a stranger.

A security guard delivers a box to my room. “They’re brownies,” I tell the security guard. “From my mother.” But she needs to inspect what’s inside. My mom has triple-taped the box and after I fail to slice through the tape using a plastic butter knife provided with lunch the guard pokes through with her pen. Inside the box is a gift bag, and I show her the contents of the gift bag: two tinfoil bricks. “Open them please,” she says without saying. I open the first: brownies. “Open the second,” she says without saying. I open the second. “Have a good day,” she says.

Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

I flirt with more people on apps.

Do you know how you caught it?

I finish Susan Taubes’s Divorcing. I start Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. I text my roommates about returning. It is Sunday, and they would rather I stay until Saturday, when one roommate will leave to move back in with her elderly parents for the rest of the winter. I tell them I’ll see what I can do. But when my contact tracer calls—Fever? No fever. Loss of smell and taste? Getting better. Congestion? Improving.—I’m too nervous to ask about extending my stay.

At 3:45, I call the nurse on my floor to ask them to remember to take me outside. “We have you down,” she says, like it was obvious. “Crazy Mike will come for you at four.”

Crazy Mike hammers my door at 4:30. “Are you ready?” he asks. Crazy Mike is the loudest and laughiest of all the nurses, and as he crosses the hallway to the elevator, he knocks on the doors without stopping, shouting “Elevator” when the patients emerge. They scamper out of their rooms to join the caravan we have created.

Dusk has edged into night by the time we make it outside. The smoker from my first fresh air break has been replaced by a twenty-something white woman in a Mets cap. She begins powerwalking laps around the circular driveway as soon as we step outside.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Every morning, before drinking my coffee, I run my nose along an incense stick to see if I can smell anything. Every morning, before this morning, I smell nothing. But today I catch a gentle whiff of patchouli. I text every friend I have told I am sick to tell them I’m better, practically healed.

On the phone, my contact tracer congratulates me for making it ten days.

“Does this mean I can’t spread it to anyone?”

“If after ten days from your first sign of symptoms you have gone twenty-four hours without a fever—without the aid of medications—then your likelihood of transmission is low,” he answers, which isn’t an answer.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I drag my nose along the incense stick but smell nothing.

I still haven’t heard about extending my stay and am scheduled to leave the following morning. I call the floor nurse. She asks why I want to stay longer. I give her the rundown: Roommates, shared bathroom, elderly parents.

My roommates and I agree to wear masks in the house when I return. We will spend every possible minute we can in our rooms, leaving only to pee and shower and microwave meals or to collect the takeout dropped on our doorstep.

A social worker calls to perform a survey. How was your stay with us? Dry, scrapy, sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, boring—as is expected—a glum little portal into low-stakes confinement. It could have been worse. I’m thankful it wasn’t. How responsive were the nurses to your needs? I rarely know my own needs. I can’t blame the nurses for not knowing them, either. How did you sleep? I can sleep anywhere. I’m not the right person to ask. How likely are you to recommend the hotel isolation program to someone in need? My roommates are very happy I’m here, and I’m glad I could do this for them. Is there anything we could do better? You are doing the best you can with the resources at your disposal.

Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

I spend the day bingeing Sex and the City, convinced it won’t hold the same appeal once I’m no longer trapped in a hotel, but I fade before finishing season 2. I am a Carrie, I conclude.

Crazy Mike retrieves me from my room. Outside, I trundle in a clockwise direction, my contagious exhalations clouding my glasses. The Mets Cap woman walks counterclockwise, the only patient moving against the collective flow. “Let’s go!” Crazy Mike shouts. We venture into the lobby and the smoke breakers return their cigarettes to the guards and the fresh air breakers strut past the guards with unencumbered aplomb.

For dinner, I heat leftover soup in the bathroom sink by running hot water over the plastic container until the soup meets the temperature of the water. I tell the people that I have been flirting with that I am returning to my apartment tomorrow. I eat the last of the brownies my mom has sent me—two full brownie bricks in three days, I’m ashamed to confess. My facial hair is fully a beard, shimmering red, so different in color from the brown mop of hair on my scalp that it appears detachable.

“Wellness check!”

I present my forehead to the temperature gun.

“It says here, sir, that you’re planning to leave tomorrow. What time is your cab coming?”

“Noon,” I tell her.

“Be ready by eleven-thirty,” she says. She wishes me a good final night.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A nurse knocks on my door at noon. He seems surprised I’m ready to leave. “You really want to go home,” he says.

“I guess so,” I say. It hasn’t occurred to me before now how badly I want to leave. I am an adjustable person. I spent my life contorting myself to fit into whatever my life presented to me. I easily could have isolated in this hotel forever, flirting and FaceTiming, unfoiling my brownies for guards, texting friends I’m better and I’m worse until the earth turned to ash inside the expanding sun.

I’m wearing two backpacks—hiking backpack behind me, a student backpack bunched on my chest—and hauling a bag full of leftover food and utensils. The notes on the doors have changed since I arrived. Husband and wife is now mother and daughter, cleaned Tuesday 7:14 replaces father and son. The nurse and I ride silently down the patient elevator, our shoes firmly fixed on feet decals in opposite corners.

I take selfies of myself in the cab, bundled up in a mask, scarf, jacket, and hat, my fogged glasses concealing the sliver of skin that pinches out from behind all this fabric. I slide open my little window and stretch my face to the air. I am not normally a cheesy person, not a sentimental or grateful person. My lack of gratitude has made me unmanageable to friends, family, and lovers alike. I prioritize writing over everything in my life. When I visit my parents, I maintain my daily writing routine at the expense of time spent with them. Worse, I expect them to be okay with this. My selfishness is, I fear, what drove me to cut off my former roommate—she was a fine roommate; I should have invited her to the comedy show. And perhaps for the first time in my life I am authentically grateful: for the roommates who left food outside my door, for the nurses who remembered nothing about me, for New York City—even for Bill Fucking de Blasio—for the friends who checked in on me every day, for the writer who Venmo'd me twenty bucks to buy takeout, for my mother for mailing me brownies, for my father for sending delivery carrots and cucumbers, for the flirters, for Sex and the City, for the smidge of open window in my hotel room, and for the cab driver who leaned out his window before pulling away to wish me a speedy recovery.

You Might Also Like