LOVE IN THE WAKE OF COVID-19
Benji and the Tree
“Hey, look at that jerk, he’s huggin’ a tree!” “Where? What are ya talkin’ ‘bout Tommy?”
“Over there, stupid! Follow my finger. See the little turd huggin’ that tree?”
“Oh, Tommy, that’s Benji. You know, the one with the real good lookin’ sister. He’s got mental problems. You know Barbara.”
“That’s Barbara’s brother? Nah! I don’t believe it. He’s puny!. Hey! Let’s go give him a little what for!” “Barbara won’t like that, Tommy. I thought you had the hots for her. Benji’s her twin.”
“Oh bull! She’s twice his size. And he looks like he ain't put hair over his johnson yet.”
“I didn’t say they was identical.” He’s in a special class. My mom’s an aide there. She says he’s hard to reach.”
“I’ll show you how to reach him. Follow me.”
“Oh boy, here we go.”
“Hey kid, what’s your name?”
“Didn’t ya hear me? I asked ya for yer name. What is it?”
“C’mon Tommy. You’re a big athlete. You don’t need to put this kid down. It sure won’t help you none with Barbara.”
Tommy slammed Benji’s head against the tree with the heel of his hand. “Now I got yer attention, right? Now tell me yer name!”
Tears rolled down Benji’s cheeks. Cowering, he went to the far side of the tree, using it as protection. “C’mon Tommy, let’s go play some basketball.” “Just hang on, Mandy, I need to learn this kid a thing or two. Now tell me yer screwed up name an’ why you’re huggin’ this damn tree.”
Tears worked over his cheeks as he inched his way to the opposite side of the tree. His head faced the tree roots but his eyes searched upward, hiding behind his eyebrows, focusing on Tommy. Finally, he spoke, “I don’t like you.”
“Hey, he talks! I thought he was just a fake, a little doll! But he talks! And he cries! He’s just stupid!” “I’m not stupid. I’m smart. You’re stupid!”
“That does it! Now you’re goin’ to get a good beatin’ … ya little punk. No one calls me names an’ gets away with it!”
“Tommy! Look! Here comes Barbara! Oh, boy, this ain’t good.”
“Thomas Brandos! What do you think you’re doing? Get away from my brother!”
“Hey, screw you! In fact, after I give yer retard brother here a little what for, I might just let ya have a little of me.” “You’re the retard, Thomas, You’re the one who’s stayed back twice and still can’t manage multiplication. Benji’s in a challenging class. Your challenge is to stay off cigarettes, beer, and swearing. Come on Benji, let’s go home.”
Grabbing her arm, and causing a book to fall from the two she was holding, Tommy leered at Barbara, drawing her close to him. Hey, a little kiss, a little somethin’ else, maybe a big somethin’ else, and a little promise for more later, then maybe I’ll let up on your squirt brother.”
As he pushed his body against her and tried to push her against the tree, Barbara jerked her knee up between Tommy's legs, and as he retreated, followed the knee with a sharp toe kick; then she slammed the remaining book square in his face.
“ You haven’t had a chance to learn from that book yet. You’d be surprised at the powerful message it contains.”
“Mandy, I’m surprised at you. You should stop sucking up to this jerk.”
“Come on, Benji. Let’s go home.”
“What happened to Benji? His head is all bruised.” “Well, Ma, truth be told, Benji came out of it pretty well. I think I broke Thomas Brandos’s nose.” “Oh dear! Is this something I should hear about?” “No worries, Mom. Thomas and his sycophant friend Mandy were picking on Benji. Well, it was really just Thomas. Then he grabbed me and forced himself on me; so I retaliated.”
“A knee, a foot, a book,” Benji added. “She protected me … and herself. She had to. He was doing bad things.” “The book got the nose. You don’t want to know what the knee and foot found,” Barbara clarified.
“Oh, my gracious! If only I had started teaching at Lexington Prep earlier … you both could be going there – tuition free.”
“Mom, you’re doing just fine and so are we. We’ve both been tentatively accepted in college, and Benji will get the special attention he needs there. You’ve done everything you can.”
“We visit trees at Lexington,” Benji noted. “It’s better than books.”
“What was going on with that big maple today, Benji?” “I was listening. Barbara. It’s a warm week, It could make a mistake and run its sap.”
“You see Mom, Benji’s the only one in town who listens to trees, let alone talks to them. Explaining that to someone like Thomas is like speaking Korean to him!”
“Oh, Barbara, that reminds me. The Parks are coming over for dinner. They should be here shortly. There are some family troubles back home and they need a bit of people nourishment. Something about a quarantine. Hyo joo will explain it.”
“I like Hyo-joo,” Benji asserted. “She’s friendly and smart. She’s never mean."
“I love Hyo-joo. She’s so bright and perky. Always upbeat. You’re lucky to have her as a student, Mom.” “She’s a fine young lady. I think she might go into medicine eventually. Well, it’s very early, but she has no difficulty in any of her classes and loves the sciences.” “She’s good in botany,” Benji added.
“Biology with a bit of emphasis on botany since that’s my passion. it’s a small class but she stands out.” “She loves trees.”
“Yes, Benji, she seems to have a special interest in trees just like you do.”
“Is Kim coming too? You said the Parks, Mom. Is Kim Sang-ook coming?”
“Yes Barbara, Kim is coming too. I’d better get back in the kitchen.”
“Barbara loves Kim.” Benji stated this as if everyone knew and it was almost unnecessary to add.
“Benji! Close your trap! Kim is a wonderful, extremely bright young man. He has a wonderful sense of humor; so it’s only natural that I like to be with him. He talked me into learning Taekwondo. It comes so naturally to him, I admire
… well, anyone would admire a young man like him. He’s fun. Still, he has some growing up to do.”
A slight smile grew over Benji’s face as he walked away, saying, “Barbara loves Kim."
“I’ll help you in a minute, Ma. I’ll just put things away and then I’ll put a compress on Benji’s head and some tape over his mouth.”
“I’m OK. It didn’t hurt that much.”
“It’s not over yet.”
The Park Twins
“That’s the door Benji. Can you get it?”
“Hi Kim, Hi Hyo-joo.”
“What happened to your forehead, Benji?”
“Oh, nothing. I got too close to a Maple.”
“Benji was listening for an early sap run and a bully slammed his head against the tree. Hi Hyo-joo. Just put your coats on the rack there, Kim.”
Benji added, “He went after Barbara too!”
“Oooh, that was a mistake!” Kim spoke to the wall and his coat as if they were part of the party.
"I think the bully will remember the encounter longer than Benji,” Barbara explained with a smirk.
Hyo-joo handed her coat to her brother and joined Barbara. "Did he know that you are advanced in Taekwondo?”
"I tried to illustrate a toe kick, but he didn’t receive it well.”
“And the early sap run, Benji, did you hear any evidence of it?”
“No, Hyo-joo, not yet. The trees are smart. They will wait.”
“I love your passion for trees, Benji. No one cares like you do. I’d love to take you for walks in our home area. Trees are very important to us in Korea. The pine is the tree of Korea, you know. It stays green in winter, it shows
us how to go through hardship, as we do now. You would love Nami, a tiny island just filled with special trees, Benji.” “I’d like Korea. South Korea.”
“Yes Benji, South Korea is very different, at least now. We, in South Korea try to keep the past history of our country alive. We interact with our environment and appreciate it like you do. Did you know that we have scientists in South Korea who think like you do, who appreciate trees like you do? They did a study on older women in Korea and compared them when they traveled through the cities – and then again when they walked through the forests. You know what they found?”
“The women were happier in the forests. The trees liked it too.”
“The women’s bodies were happier. Their blood pressure was lower, their arteries were more elastic, and their lungs filled better.”
“The women, their bodies, and the trees were all happier. You always make sense, Hyo-joo.”
“Oh, thank you, Benji, you are so sweet. We share so much. You continue to be an inspiration for me. You know, at our home, we have beautiful gardens and lovely trees, don’t we Kim?”
Yes, and at least our parents can look out on those while they are in quarantine.”
“Quarantine? why are they in quarantine? Is there some terrible disease going about?” Barbara asked. “Well it’s complicated, isn’t it Hyo-joo? A long story. Do we have time before dinner?”
“Ma, do we have some time before dinner?”
A voice from the kitchen replied, “Enjoy your chat. We’ll eat in a half hour.”
“Perhaps Hyo-joo can explain it better. I try to make light of it, and she gets upset. You know, Hyo-joo will let the rest of us relax. She will do the worrying for all of us, and she can direct all the serious talk.”
“He’s impossible. But he knows just as much as I do. Go ahead Kim, you tell your side. It will definitely be the lighter side.”
“All right. You must excuse my simplification. I’m not the one who wants to go into medicine and loves four syllable words.” Pausing, to throw a smug smile at his sister, he continued. “That bad bug that your sometime doctor-president says is going to go away is considered very scary in South Korea. We got our first case the same day you did. Yes, the very same day. The difference is, we had been burned before and were still smarting eight years later. You see, we learned. Eight years ago, we had just one person come to Korea from the Middle East and then we had an epidemic.”
“That was MERS. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” Hyo-joo explained.
“What did I tell you? She can’t resist.”
Hyo-joo stuck her tongue out at him.
“As I was saying, this virus, this microbe, this MERS, taught our health authorities a lesson eight years ago; so they were prepared. When they found out that a new germ, a new Corona virus, much like the past MERS, was
causing trouble in China, the KCDC was ready. Then, when that first case came to South Korea, the same day it came to the United States, our pencil pushers and our medical folks got together and traced all the people that this one person contacted; and then traced the contacts of the contacts, and then the contacts of …”
“Kim, they understand. They also understand your prejudice for your country, and hopefully forgive your emphasis on that.” Hyo-joo directed her further explanation to the Sappiance twins. “Kim’s pencil pushers are our Korean Center for Disease Control, our KCDC. Evidently the contacts ran into thousands. Anyone with a significant contact was isolated, ‘voluntarily’ if you will, which means they were put into quarantine.” “It is voluntary isolation.”
“That’s what I said, Kim. Kim is not so light hearted as he appears. You see him defending his country here and not so subtly criticizing yours. He thinks you won’t notice.” “Quarantine?” Benji asked.
“Yes, Benji, quarantine, as Hyo-joo says. But it could be worse. Quarantine used to mean 40 days and 40 nights. Now, they pick a number that is different depending on the bug. So they decided on two weeks. That’s what our parents are facing. Two weeks of isolation, looking at their garden, being alone but being looked after as well. They have friends dropping off food. Everyone keeps a long lance distance from them, but friends look after them.”
“Wow, that seems excessive, Kim. Our president says this is something like a cold. It’s just going to go away. He’s not making a big deal out of it. Don’t you agree, Benji?”
“He’s not a doctor.”
“Benji and I have somewhat different political slants. I guess we are like you. Twins with different views, more like, well … Please do go on. What happened with that MERS bug, Kim? That was a Corona virus as well?”
“Yes. And that is where we were burned. We still don’t know the details. There was a lot of hush hush, a need for secrecy in the beginning. But what turned into an epidemic was evidently due to just one person. The government didn’t want to scare people so they didn’t tell them what was going on.”
“Like we do now,” Benji added.
“Benji, now, you hush! Go on Kim.’'
“It’s all right Benji. I understand. Yes, we have the same problems. Not just in government, but between twins too. This MERS came to us late. It had been around for a few years before it came to South Korea. When it came, it was bad. It spread from Sunchang to Sokcho in the north; it spread even as far south as Jeju. That’s our island off to the south. So it was everywhere from south to north; and from east coast to west coast. Of course our country is very small, but in spite of efforts to contain things, I think they had nearly 200 cases that were ‘definite,’ one hundred and eighty some odd – and two out of ten died.” “Oh my, two out of ten!” Barbara exclaimed.
“Still, South Korea did better than the global
averages. Instead of two out of ten dying, as in South Korea, the global figures usually cite three to four out of ten … and sometimes more. South Korea did well with just under a 20% mortality. MERS was a real killer. We know we can’t really depend upon exact figures. It’s like it is here. Sometimes we get only a few teaspoons of the truth out of the bowl.”
“That’s not what Samchon says. He says the virus changed as it went from place to place.”
“Samchon is our uncle. He’s a doctor and a guiding light for my dear sister.”
“He was there, in Hong Kong, for the first one!” “True. That was the first. It was the first of these three maladies. That was SARS one. We pretty much escaped that one, but Samchon, our uncle, was unfortunate enough to be in Hong Kong where it was raging at the time. He ended up being recruited to help. We have heard that story many times. It all happened around the time that we were born, but we now know it as if we lived it. That’s what uncles are for. It makes us seem, and feel, a lot older … and wiser.”
“Samchon is a wonderful and brave man, Kim! One out of six died then, in Hong Kong.”
“Samchon varies the story a bit. And the figures are probably not that dependable either. It was a serious germ and he was lucky to escape alive.”
“So," Barbara queried, “this is a bit confusing, Kim. Your uncle, your Samchon, he was there for the first one,
that was in Hong Kong. Then there was, what was it, MERS, but we have still another? These two or three microbes are all closely related, Kim?”
“Yes, all in the same bad family. They are all Corona viruses. The first one started in China, like this one. That’s the first SARS or Corona virus. That’s the one he fought in Hong Kong. Samchon has many names for it, none of them nice.”
“Sorry Benji, I should have explained. SARS stands for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It’s a bad disease that makes you very, very sick.”
“SEVERE, acute, respiratory syndrome, Kim. You see, Barbara, he’s not so smart as you think he is.” “He’ll do. So the first one and this one came from China.”
“Samchon says they start in the wet markets. Excuse me for taking over dear brother. But I revere Samchon, and his explanations, more than you do. Samchon has urged Kim to go into medicine and Kim always finds an obstinate alternative. These are viruses. Samchon says they are big viruses but since they are viruses you still can’t see them.”
“Not unless you carry an electron microscope around with you.”
“Quiet, Kim! They are little tiny balls shaped like crowns, that’s why they call the family the Corona family.” “Or, it’s like having a beer in Mexico.”
“Kim! I gave you a chance. Just let me finish and defend Samchon. He says that they start in the wet markets where different animals are gathered – animals that would never be so close together in nature. Corona viruses love to live in bats, especially horseshoe bats. But they live in other animals too, like civets, and many, many other animals. The MERS virus, the one that came from the Middle East, loves camels. When they go from one animal to another, that’s when the big trouble starts. Whether it’s in a bat, a civet, a camel, a pangolin, or whatever, going from there to a human is when it really gets bad. That’s when the virus jumps.”
“Yes, Benji, jumps. It jumps from one kind of animal to another; and when it does it becomes especially virulent.” “She means that it gains strength and makes people a lot sicker.”
“Thank you, brother. I do need your help! You see, he pretends not to know anything and hopes to know everything at the same time. He is impossible. But yes, he is my twin, and I give him his fair chance, Yes Kim? You see, no answer, just a nod. If he can’t win, he doesn’t play. Now, back to Samchon. Samchon says these Corona viruses love to change and you never know what they are going to do.”
“This is the same germ, the same virus, that we have here now?”
“Yes, Barbara, or at least almost the same. It’s sort of one, two, and three. Three variations. All bad. But because
we had so much trouble with number two, that was MERS in South Korea, we were extra ready for number three.” “And that’s why your parents are in quarantine? Are they sick?”
“No, they are fine … so far. But it can take a couple of weeks for the virus to show itself as an illness. That’s why the quarantine. Samchon, our uncle stays near our parents and keeps us informed.”
“So,” Barbara concluded, “there is a family of viruses, this Corona family, and it has had three escapees that have been like plagues. This one now is the third. Your uncle was there for the first which was around the time we were all born, so the story of the viruses spans our lives; and the third one, the one that is causing your parents to be in quarantine, is the one that is unleashed now. Is that right?”
“You see how she listens to you Kim? You want to make sure you don’t make mistakes. Barbara, you have summarized things very well, but you have ascribed a little more credit to my brother than he deserves. We hope for the best.”
“As do we!” Barbara averred.
Keep them Guessing
“That was a fine meal, Mrs, Sappiance, thank you.” “It wan’t any trouble and it was a pleasure to share it with you. I’m so sorry about your family.”
“Hyo-joo and I feel especially … well, being this far from home, you know, it’s difficult. But you are like a second home. We thank you. We must be getting back to our dorm.”
“Mom has a meeting and Benji wants to come and visit with the campus trees this weekend. Perhaps we’ll run into each other, Kim.”
“I hope so, Barbara. Will I see you in Taekwondo?” “Monday afternoon! Remember how they responded when we told them we were twins?”
“Oh yes, I can’t forget that one. They thought we were twins and yet were baffled by how that might be. We raised a lot of eyebrows on that one.”
“Like in Taekwondo, keep them guessing.”
“Two sets of twins.” Mother Sappiance added. “Each individual so different. My, my, Gregor Mendel would have had a field day here.” Then she retreated to her kitchen.